Sunday, September 09, 2007

Court Movement 103

In this post, we’ll continue our series on increasing the speed (and efficiency) of your court movement by having a brief discussion of how to hit efficiently while on the run.

First, let 's define what I mean by "hitting on the run"…

What I am talking about is situations during play where you have to move—sprint, that is—more than three or four steps before you can form a hitting stance to strike your shot. In general, we are talking about playing situations where you may be:

  • Reacting to a shot where your opponent changes the direction of your return (e.g. your opponent hits your crosscourt return down the line or vice-versa)

  • Retrieving shots that your opponent aggressively drives into the deep corners in response to your own soft or short returns

  • Retrieving drop shots, drop volleys, or, if you are playing Federer, low, short slice shots that land in the service boxes when you are positioned well behind (> 5 feet) the baseline.

In these situations, you maybe forced to cover a very large distance (perhaps as much as the entire half of the court to return a drop shot, or the entire distance along the baseline from one doubles alley to the other to retrieve a well-struck forehand) in very short time in order to make any contact, much less effective contact, with the ball.

And, many times the total reaction time you have to make contact in those “emergency” situations won’t allow you to set up completely to make your shot… You might only have enough time to set one, rather than both feet in an improvised hitting stance from which to accelerate to ball contact.

Of course, the ideal way to “hit on the move” is to move fast enough to “win that race” with your opponent’s return and set up completely—i.e. set both feet firmly on the court—for a clean, controlled strike.

But, what if you can only move fast enough to achieve a “tie” in that race to the ball, where you will arrive only at the last possible moment to make an effective stroke? What then?

In that case, there are three critical moves you must make to hit effectively while on the dead run:

1) Make your initial steps to the ball as explosive as possible.

· First, lower your center of gravity using your split-step.

· Second, turn your hips and shoulders in the direction of the ball, and start moving toward the ball using the leg that’s closest to the ball (if you need to move to your right, “step out” with your right leg and vice-versa), and pump your arms powerfully in your initial move to the ball.

2) After you’re about halfway there, stop pumping your arms and immediately finish your backswing such that the only move you’ll make with your hands and upper body is to accelerate the racket forward to contact.

3) Swing forward very aggressively to contact a split second after you make your last step with your back foot.

You need to be very aggressive with your forward swing because you are fighting somewhat all of the momentum you’ve generated by moving explosively toward the ball. Effectively, your feet are propelling you in one direction, and you are trying to swing with your hands and arms against the direction of the momentum of your lower body by swinging to make (solid) contact with the ball. So you need to aggressively accelerate towards contact.

These are the three core moves you must make to hit effectively while on the run.

Now, you might ask the question: what do I do after finishing my stroke?

On what foot should I land after making contact? What’s the quickest way to begin my recovery for my opponent’s next return?

The answer to the former question is, quite frankly, “it depends”. There isn’t a single, optimal foot to finish on. The foot which you land on depends mainly on the type of shot you chose to execute on the run (i.e. a deep, hard drive, or a high and heavy looping return, or a sharp crosscourt angle return). You could land on either foot really… It's really a matter of personal "style".

Although I will point out to you that players who can consistently generate a sharp (fast) crosscourt angle return on the run tend to land on their front foot (see Federer, Roger and Sampras, Pete), while players who are adept at hitting high, heavy and deep topspin returns while on the run often land on their back foot first, with their front leg held in the air (see Nadal, Rafael).

Likewise, if you want to produce a return with a lower, “driving” trajectory (rather than a higher, more looping trajectory), landing on your front foot after contact has been the preferred method of accomplished tennis millionaires throughout the history of the sport.

(Hmmm… “Accomplished Tennis Millionaires” or “ATMs”… That acronym is a keeper. See the connection? “ATMs”, as in, receive tons of cash money in return by playing tennis in a certain way. :) )

The answer to the latter question is simply, “sit down” or “step out” on your back leg, and immediate push back toward the center of the court with the same leg. So, if you landed on your front foot, immediately after the front foot makes contact with the ground, use your back leg to stop and push hard back toward the center of the court. Likewise, if you landed on your back leg, immediately begin moving toward the center of the court using the same leg.

Notice that I am not trying to explain in any fine-grain detail about how to perform the exact movements required to make the initial moves toward the ball or how to recover. Other than telling you which leg (right or left) to use to initiate an efficient movement sequence, the fine details of how to execute an effective running shot (total number of steps, how big are the steps, how fast to pump the arms, the final speed needed to reach the ball to make contact, etc.), and how well you can execute your running shots may vary infinitely from situation to situation and from player to player because all of this is solely dependent on your own innate athletic ability.

AND, as athletic ability ranges so widely even among elite tennis players (i.e. the difference between Federer’s apparent ability to “glide” from shot to shot versus Roddick’s sometimes heavy-footed, “stomping” action), it’s virtually impossible to give a very detailed description, much less an “exact” description of the movement themselves beyond describing the optimal way to initiate the movement itself.

All that’s really possible is to describe the principles involved, and leave it to each player to execute the necessary movements in their own unique way. There is indeed a “science” to all athletic skills, but in the end, the execution of those skills ultimately represents the “artistry” of the player him/herself.

And that “artistry” is yet another element that explains why so many of us are so fascinated by this great sport.

So, to review the key principles of hitting effectively on the (full) run:

1) Make your initial steps to the ball as explosive as possible.

2) After you’re about halfway there, stop pumping your arms and immediately finish your backswing such that the only move you’ll make with your hands and upper body is to accelerate the racket forward to contact.


3) Swing forward to contact a split second after you make your last step with your back foot.


P.S. For those of you that still have trouble grasping this idea of how speed is the defining element of tennis success, just look at the singles players who made the Final 4 at Flushing Meadow.

Final 4 Men: Federer, Djokovic, Davydenko, and Ferrer

Final 4 Women: Henin, Kuznetsova, Williams, and Chakvetadze

All 8 players possess the necessary foot and racket speed to either out-run their opponents or out-hit them.

What’s interesting among the group is that both the Men’s (Federer and Djokovic) and Women’s finalists (Henin and Kuznetsova) hit with the most spin from among the original group of 8…

What does this mean? The take-home message is that the 4 finalists not only generated the fastest strokes (from serves to groundstrokes), but they also maximized their control over their strokes through their higher spin production.

These 4 players achieved both maximum power (ball speed) and control of their strokes.

In other words, they get to "have their cake and eat it too"... Which , BTW, for those who may be keeping track , the "cake" that Roger gets to enjoy is worth, in real terms:

  • 500 ATP ranking points (the maximum possible for winning a single tournament--compare that massive points windfall to the winner of an entry level pro singles tournament, who is typicially overjoyed to earn an astronomical 12 ranking points ), and

  • $1.4 MILLION in prize money as the US Open singles champion (compare this amount to the $1,200 earned by the singles winner of a $10,000--that means 10K in total prize money, people--Futures tournament.)

As you can see, there's a lot of valuable "cake" out there for players to enjoy...

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