It’s important that players understand the importance, function and movements of the split-step. When you finally “get it,” tennis becomes a very different game. Split-steps link together movements and create a brief pause allowing players to make decisions, react efficiently, see where the ball is going and change direction quickly. Split-stepping is as important to movement on a tennis court as breathing air is to our bodies.
What is a split-step?
Think of the split-step as gaining a perfect ready position from movement. Because of the brief pause, it lets you see and respond, in advance, to shots efficiently. It is the basis of correct footwork and technique when approaching an incoming ball.
There is a forward split-step and a lateral split-step. These two have to be technically different because you are approaching the position from different directions.
This article will be referencing the forward split-step. In order to split-step, it’s good to know what a good ready position is. For reference, please see my article, “Ready Position? Who Cares?” in the November/December 2018 issue of Long Island and New York Tennis Magazine.
Why is the split-step so important?
Balance in movement is essential to playing any sport well. Since tennis is a game that requires coverage of a large court, we need to enable good vision, quick changes of direction, explosive movement and specific footwork. All of these elements start with balance.
With a timed “stop,” players can see an incoming ball, and move to it efficiently.
Here is one example of using a split-step: You are coming forward to attempt a first volley. A volley has specific footwork that stems from ready position. If you land a balanced split-step, you have created a ready position from movement. Then, you will be able to transition directly into the volley.
Another example: As you are approaching the mid-court you are watching your opponent. They look to be in a defensive position and you anticipate a lob. Make your split-step in order to balance and anticipate where the ball might take you. If the lob is successful, then you can use your specific overhead footwork to move back. If the lob is unsuccessful and is coming slowly over the net, then you use your volley footwork to go forward to the ball.
The split-step will allow you time to make a conscious decision and to use appropriate footwork for each shot.
How do you physically create a split-step?
A split-step is a specific movement done the same way each time, but with some modifications depending on how far the ball you hit will travel. It is basically two movements—the take-off and landing—with the upper body in a ready position and the head still.
Many of you may have played hopscotch when you were kids. In this footwork game, you jumped forward off of one foot and landed on two feet, then stepped into the next move. Split stepping is the same basic movement.
If that is not familiar, try this exercise … stand two feet behind the service line with your weight on one foot, leg flexed. Jump off of one leg towards the service line and land with both feet hitting the ground at the same time. This may be difficult due to a lack of momentum, but it’s important to attempt this to isolate the movement. Practice taking off of your right leg and your left leg.
It’s much easier to do this movement from a short run so that you have some momentum for the one-legged leap. So, start at the baseline, shadow a forehand, run forward a few steps and take off one leg to land softly on two feet. You should travel anywhere from one to three feet from take-off to landing. Your upper body is in a ready position between take-off and landing.
Also, most people have a “take-off” leg or one leg that feels more natural to jump off of. That is perfectly natural.
Momentum is good, but it can also be unmanageable. A forward-moving jump can be difficult to land in a balanced stance. Your feet should land “toe-heel” in order to soften the landing. Basically, the balls of your feet will hit the ground first and then your heels. This also allows the feet, legs and body to act in a propulsive manner known as a plyometric movement. Then, you will be able to produce a dynamic movement to the next ball.
With this landing, you’ll sink down with your ankles, knees and hips to absorb shock. Your center of gravity will naturally be back when you are in the air and when you land. Otherwise, you’ll spill forward. When you land, your knees will allow your weight to shift forward onto the front of your feet. This bouncy position will blend into an immediate push off of either the right foot or the left foot to the next hit. It will also allow you to balance to go back for an overhead.
A good way to practice the landing is to jump off of a low lift (eight- to 10-inches), landing on two feet. Instinctively, you will have your feet in a wide position and you will land toe-heel, letting your knees bend and your butt go towards the ground. This instinctive shock absorption is our way of softening the landing so that it doesn’t hurt. Your arms will also get involved in the slowing down process. Later on, you’ll need more specific positioning with your arms out away from your body.
After practicing your landing, then shadow a movement to a forehand or backhand volley. This will help you understand how the feet, knees, legs and hips move powerfully from the landing to the next move.
When do you produce a split-step? What is the timing?
You make a split-step every time after you strike a ball. When exactly that is varies. How hard and high you hit your ball, the distance you are coming in from and how far apart you are from your opponent are big factors in when to split-step.
Generally speaking, you will split-step after your ball lands on the other side of the court and before your opponent strikes the ball. That’s a lot of space and distance for the ball to travel, so you need to understand a few things in order to be successful.
How quickly the ball will get to your opponent is the number one consideration.
On paper, this is pretty easy to understand. Being in the moment makes it a lot more difficult.
If you hit a hard and low ball, it will get to the opponent faster, giving you less time to run before the split no matter where you are coming from and no matter where your opponent is. You’ll naturally get a shorter distance in because your ball is traveling faster. If you hit a higher and slower ball, then your potential to get further forward is greater.
So, for example, if you and your opponent are far apart (baseline to baseline) and you hit a hard, low ball, it will get to the other side quickly so you’ll get a shorter distance in than if you hit a slower, higher ball.
►A split-step is not just a stop. Many players shuffle, slow down or completely stand still in random areas of the court. These attempts are not split-steps. They merely hinder gaining good court position, the ability to respond quickly and to change direction.
►Most players split without accuracy. Good timing and technique are both necessary to respond well to a ball and to once again gain good court position.
►Another common error is trying to get too far into the court before making a split-step. It’s best to split early so that you are always coming in with the ball well in front of you. For example, many players think they need to get to the service line each time when they are coming forward. That is incorrect.
►Many players approach the split-step either too slowly or too aggressively. Too slowly will leave you short of good court position. Too aggressively leads to going in too far and being out of control for a balanced split-step.
Decision-making time means you are in control
If you are in control of your body and you can see what is coming then you have the ability to make good decisions. Anything else is reflexive and reactive. While those two qualities are good to have, we don’t want to depend on them as our basis of play.
When you split-step at an appropriate time and in an organized manner, you are poised to be able to make great decisions. A split-step is your decision-making time. Should you volley or half-volley? How quickly should you move to a ball, where would you like your shot to go? Being able to think quickly on your feet is extremely helpful.
Remember, when you split-step, it is a powerful, balanced and propulsive ready position.
If you do this before your opponent strikes each ball you can clearly see how and when the ball is hit by the opponent and how it is approaching you. This gives plenty of time to respond to each incoming ball.
Then, you will have the ability to move athletically and with precision to a ball that you can see. That is the recipe for success for any player.