Why is it that the pros seem to glide on the court so effortlessly and always be in perfect position? Part of it is to do with their stellar anticipation – knowing where their opponent is going to hit the ball before it even leaves their racquet. But a large part of it is that they are able to put themselves in the absolute best position possible whenever they have the opportunity.
In some cases, you will have to be on a dead-run in order to get to your opponent’s good shot. In these cases you are sprinting towards the ball. But in most cases, especially at the amateur and intermediate skill levels, you will have so much time to reach the ball that you don’t even know what to do with yourself. You can get into what you think is good position, and wait for a couple seconds for the ball to bounce and drop into your strike zone, only to have it move on you at the last second. You had so much time! But you end up hitting it too low, too high, or too far behind you, causing errors. By taking large slow steps, you cannot make adjustments as the ball comes towards you, and you have to react to the ball at the last second – typically in a suboptimal hitting position.
If you have a slow ball coming towards you, you want to take a series of stutter steps, like in the above video. These rapid small steps give you the opportunity to adjust your body position relative to the ball. You want to always put that ball in the absolute best hitting position that you can – take it on the rise if possible, take it at nice shoulder height so you can really attack it! You may have to use the stutter steps to speed up, slow down, move in, move back, etc. But whatever they case, they help put you in optimal position to make contact with the ball in your strike zone. You should never ever be waiting for the ball, always moving towards it. Or, if it’s a really soft one where you’re forced to wait for it to bounce, you want to be approaching it with small stutter steps and constant movement. Otherwise you’ll be sitting flat footed and have no power / control / fluidity to your stroke.
If the ball is really coming at you with a lot of pace (like on a serve), you might not have time to take any steps! But in probably 8/10 cases you should be able to take at least 2-3 stutter steps before lining up that open stance shot, or neutral stance shot, to really enable yourself to attack it.
Here’s a link to a match between Henin and Ivanovic on youtube. Listen to the sound of their movement, and try to just fixate on their feet and nothing else. Most of the time they do not have time to take stutter-steps to line up a powder-puff ball, though Ivanovic shows an example right around the 1.07 minute mark near the net. If you try to count the number of steps they’re taking during a point, there are so many it’s nearly impossible. Here you can see Federer use a stutter step at 1hr58m33s. Again, the pros have such incredible anticipation skills and feel on the court, that they often know just where they need to be and how to move there. They’re also usually running out wide, or moving dynamically without extra time to spare. But at the amateur and intermediate level, the stutter step should be frequently utilized on every point.
Now, a lot of people look at videos on youtube of the pros on the practice courts warming up, and honestly 9/10 times they’re not using super dynamic footwork. They’re just standing near the middle of the court, warming up their shoulder and getting their hand-eye coordination going. I would never recommend looking at a pro on the practice court and to take too much from their technique. Look at their match play for true technique.
Smaller steps = better balance = better able to change direction.