Though tennis may have more private lessons then most other sports, in the heat of a match players are often left to their own devices. One-on-one work with a coach is crucial for building a technical and tactical arsenal, but ultimately, the player must understand what to do in matches, and most importantly, must be able to pick up on cues to improve their performance when things are not going as planned. A private coach is great for preparing a player for matches and helping a player sort out what happened after a match, but can rarely interact with players during a match. Though tennis is very complex, players of almost every level make the majority of errors stemming from one problem—poor footwork.
I have often seen players miss a shot, perhaps their go-to shot, and then stand off to the side, shadowing the swing as if their technique has abandoned them. More often than not, though their swing might have gone awry, the genesis of their mistake stems from improper positioning. When a player is not in position for a shot, their balance will be compromised and the stroke will usually break down. It may feel as though it was the swing that was awkward, and it was, but its awkwardness was necessitated by court position relative to the ball. In order to hit an ideal shot, a player must first position themselves the correct distance away from the ball and ensure that they are balanced throughout the swing, transferring their weight into the shot.
Everyone has a strike zone in tennis and, unlike baseball, it is a player’s job to ensure that their footing allows contact in a comfortable strike zone for each shot … the luxury of “waiting for your pitch” does not exist in the sport of tennis. A tennis strike zone is three dimensional—it has a height, a width and depth to it. An ideal shot is not hit too high, too low or too far in front or behind a player. An ideal shot is also the proper distance to the side of the player’s body. Any variations in this ideal contact point will necessitate modifying the swing in order to compensate for the less-than-ideal positioning as this often leads to errors.
If a player has a day where their shots feel off, the first thing they should check is their footwork. Once someone has developed reliable ground strokes, the most frequent reason for a mishit shot is a product of poor positioning which throws off their balance and then the shot. If a player makes a conscious effort to keep their feet more active and make sure that extra attention is paid to spacing then their consistency will improve and they will give away less free points. This can be crucial in turning around a match, and though it may seem pretty obvious, it can oftentimes be overlooked. A good player should never give up and never be defeated by their own feet.