Every Day I’m Shufflin’

Okay, so you’ve already seen the basic shuffle step and karaoke step, and you’ve got those movements down pat – but like the karate kid with your waxing on and off, you can’t see the application.

The shuffle step and karaoke step needs to be practiced so frequently that you never have to think about it. They are used when you recover after a shot, they are used when you move back, when you move in, and when you hit inside-outs — as seen in the video below. It must be so natural that you never think about your feet, and when the ball comes you just react and move.

When recovering along the baseline – you must use the shuffle step because you are essentially in the ready position as you are moving. You can change directions very easily and splitstep as soon as your opponent hits the ball.

Unfortunately I’m just dropping the ball here to demonstrate the shuffle – ideally on my inside outs, I would have less lateral body momentum, and be more ‘set’ to hit the ball with my feet solidly planted so I can exert force into the shot towards the court, rather that falling out of frame.

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HULK SMASH

How to hit the Overhead Smash

hulk

This shot can be a momentum changer. If you successfully smash a point away, it can demoralize your opponent, or make them feel like they are under real pressure from you. Conversely, if you miss an overhead smash – or miss more than one – your opponent can feel free to hit short balls, knowing that if you come into the net, they can just lob you and even if the lob is short, you might miss the smash. So it relieves pressure from your opponent if they think you might miss.

Often people get down on themselves for missing an overhead because they think it should be an “easy put away” but it’s actually not all that simple. Just as the serve involves many parts of the body to all work together to execute a good swing, the smash too requires good coordination from your feet, shoulders, and racquet arm. There is added complexity in that the ball coming towards you is usually coming from a high trajectory and may not be in a perfect contact zone, whereas on your serve you can place your toss perfectly so it sits there on a tee for you.

Here are the keys to hitting good overheads:

  • Turn your shoulders right after the splitstep
  • Racquet should be in the set-to-launch / trophy hold / cocked behind your head
  • Point at the ball with your left hand to track it, but also to involve your shoulders in the motion
  • Shuffle back about 3 feet further back than you think you will need to
  • Step into the ball. It’s easier to step in and hit a good smash than to hit a moving back fade-away smash where the ball is behind you.
  • If it’s a tough overhead and you have to hit it while running back, your last step should attempt to plant your right foot with your toe pointing at the net, to facilitate getting your hips and shoulders through the shot, and to reduce your momentum backwards.
  • Don’t over-hit the ball. You’re standing in very close to the net, so the ball is going to seem like it is traveling twice as fast as a baseline serve.
  • Don’t try to be too aggressive or aim it, just hit it in the court wherever feels natural. If your opponent guesses right and is able to return it, you will likely have another smash opportunity.
  • Always, always, let the overhead bounce if it’s possible to do so. Sometimes your opponent will lob up a very high ball with no spin. Let these bounce and then smash it off the bounce. The reason is that from the peak of its arc, the incoming ball will descend at you at an accelerating rate of 9.8 meters per second. In other words, for every second of hang-time on your opponent’s lob, the ball falls faster and faster. But if you let the ball bounce, then the speed at which the ball is descending at you is greatly reduced – maybe by half. To hit a very high overhead smash out of the air requires perfect timing. If you let it bounce, your timing doesn’t have to be nearly as excellent. Often when people frame the overhead or hit it out – even in the pros – they could have let the ball bounce and given themselves an easier shot.
  • Finally, WATCH THE BALL. Yes it is an obvious thing to do, but very often people will look down, or look at their opponent a microsecond before they hit the ball. This is not what you want to do. Watch the ball hit the strings, and even keep your eyes there a fraction after you have made contact, just to make sure.

Obviously don’t let the ball bounce if it’s a good topspin lob and it’ll bounce way over you into the back court. I’m talking about short, super-high lobs with no spin.

Here’s an example where I am exaggerating bad technique. I’m doing basically everything wrong. I’m late to move, late to prepare, take a big swing, let the ball get behind me, fall backwards, and don’t come through the shot.

Here’s something a lot of people do – they get in a position they feel allows them to hit the overhead, and then it turns out that they mis-judged the ball and it’s going to be way behind them. It’s too late, they can’t move their feet, and they are thrown off balance and onto the defensive. Instead of doing this, you have to be able to step into the ball and make a quick adjustment if need be.

Here’s an example of a decent overhead. I splitstep, prepare my shoulders early, point with my left arm, take little steps to adjust, move in as I hit (on a bit of an angle. It would be better if I moved directly into the court, but I misjudged the ball), and keep my eyes on the ball.

Here I’m just demonstrating the basic footwork for an overhead – you want to move backward using shuffle steps at least 2-3 feet further back than you think you need, then use that extra space to step into the ball. I noticed here that since there is no ball, I don’t keep my eyes on the imaginary ball, so just check out the feet here. (shuffle shuffle shuffle, and step in).

What’s the hardest thing about overheads for you?

Return of Serve

Here’s a summary of all you have to do:

  1. Correct Ready Position
  2. Wide base, with feet 1.5-2x shoulder width apart
  3. Good balance, back straight
  4. STEP IN as they toss, and splitstep as your opponent hits the ball
  5. Turn shoulders as soon as the ball leaves their racquet
  6. Attempt to keep the racquet out in front of your left shoulder, minimizing racquet take-back as much as possible
  7. Attack the return, maintaining the forward momentum from your step(s) into the court.

Check out my article on return of serve mentality under the strategy section.

Open Stance Forehand

Hitting Demo

1) Grip

2) Ready Position

3) Split Step

4) Shoulder Turn

5) Loop / Drop the tip of the racquet below the height of the ball.

6) With the butt-cap pointing towards the ball/your opponent, swing through the ball and upwards for spin.

7) Use your left hand to help turn your body, and then rotate your body 180 degrees as you hit.

8) Make sure for your last step, you roll your foot from heel to toe. This keeps your movement fluid.

9) Make sure your right toe is pointed toward your opponent. This is vital because it allows your hips to rotate through the shot, for maximum power. If your toe is pointed to the side of the court, you will not be able to hit through the ball, but rather the tendency will be for your body’s momentum to carry you towards the side of the court. This will also leave you vulnerable for your opponent’s response.

The direction of your right toe is even more important when moving wide or back, as in these instances you must move quickly and then reverse your body momentum as you hit.

10) After you hit the ball, recover back to the proper recovery position near the center of the court.

11) Your head should remain level throughout the entire stroke. As you move to the ball, you should be approximately 1 foot lower in height than your resting height, and as you hit the ball, your head stays at that same low level froms start to finish.

Analysis and Instruction

Common errors to avoid:

1) Allowing the racquet to float behind you. This means that on your swing through, your contact zone becomes a contact point, meaning the chances of your hitting the ball cleanly are reduced dramatically.

2) Having a big looping swing. This makes your swing slower, and you are more likely to hit the ball late.

3) Both error 1 and 2 are generally caused by unnecessary arm movement. Using shoulder and hip rotation should generate more than enough power for your shot. Arm movement only adds an extra ingredient of complexity.

4) lazy footwork and not rotating your body through the shot 180 degrees.

5) Stiff legs. Stiff legs make it impossible to explode through the ball. It makes it harder to maintain balance, and harder to move dynamically.

6) Poor balance, or moving your head.

7) Letting the ball come to you instead of moving towards the ball and hitting it as it is rising. Ideally hitting the ball higher in its arc after it bounces means that you are able to hit down on the ball and attack it. If you wait for the ball to drop too low, then you have fewer options of how to hit it. So always move in to attack when possible.

8) Never hit with a closed stance. That is for old fogies and losers.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W03R0hoXdZk

9) Pointing your right toe to the right side of the court instead of at your opponent. The basic concept is that wherever your toe is pointed, that is the direction your body’s momentum will want to travel. Since you want to get your bodyweight behind the shot, you want your toe to be pointed toward it! If it is pointed to the side, it’s very difficult to rotate properly.

Good drills: Hitting against a wall, doing shadow strokes, using a ball machine, playing mini-tennis, swinging in front of a mirror, take a vide of yourself and analyze your swing.

This series of 3 videos reviewing Federer’s forehand are solid except for the nonsense about the grip being eastern. Ignore that. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VK-9puanoRo

Did I Stutter? How to Glide on the Tennis Court with Good Balance

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.

Zig Zag Footwork Drill

This simple footwork drill – the Zig Zag drill – is a good one for people who only ever feel comfortable hitting from the baseline. It gets you used to moving into the court and using footwork to get into position. It’s also a good drill to practice maintaining perfect balance, and it helps strengthen your legs.zigzag1

Set up 4 or more cones on the court (I used ball cans), in a zig-zag pattern, with each cone approximately 2 feet in front of the other. Practice using your shuffle step to go around the cones, while maintaining good balance, keeping your legs bent and head level. Keep your eyes up looking at your opponent. This drill is just getting you more comfortable moving around the entire court, and especially moving in. Take many little steps intead of large steps.

zigzag2

Then, once you are comfortable with the shuffle steps around the cones, and feel you are doing it with good balance, practice stepping out with your last step, and rotating your body as though you were doing an abbreviated shot. This will get you used to taking little steps, and moving into the court as you hit the ball.

zigzag3

Finally, progress to moving around all cones while shadowing a full stroke. You can practice either open stance or neutral stance. To repeat, the purpose is to keep your legs bent, taking little steps, with your head on the same level and your eyes up. You’re strengthening your quad muscles (if you aren’t feeling your legs after one move through the cones, then you aren’t bending your legs enough!!!), and improving your whole-court movement.

Move through the shot

Always Move In

Ideally you always want to be moving into the ball when you hit it. Even if you are being pushed back by a high one, you want to move back, then on your last step (or two) move into the ball. This gets your body weight behind your shot, and uses your momentum for extra power and acceleration during your swing.

Additionally, moving in towards the ball as it approaches you means you can hit the ball at a higher point, allowing you to hit a more aggressive shot.

It also robs your opponent of recovery time.

Finally, moving in towards the ball cuts off the angle, and reduces the distance you have to run to get into position. This becomes very important on the return of serve.

Karaoke and Shuffle Step

Most people will probably glance over this post because the title is boring, or they figure ‘hey what do I need footwork for, I already know how to walk and run!’

But the only way to play decent tennis is to master these two simple movements. These two footwork movements are the absolute core for playing next-level tennis. You should do so many shuffle steps and karaoke steps that you don’t have to think about it. Shuffle all the way around the court 2 or 3 times before each practice, then repeat with the karaoke step. Do it after each practice as well. Do it when you’re waiting to get onto the court. If you are out going for a jog, mix in some shuffle steps and karaoke steps.

If it were up to me, before teaching any student how to hit the ball with the racquet, I’d spend full lessons doing nothing but shuffle steps and karoke steps until they were blue in the face. Until you are comfortable with shuffle steps and karaoke steps, you’re going to get squished like a grape. 

So learn these movements early and you will learn everything else much quicker later on.