I‘ve seen it thousands of times. A parent wants to teach his kid to play tennis and all he talks about is how his kid can’t hit the ball. He’ll talk about how the child’s swing isn’t quite right, or he’ll ask for tips about how best to teach topspin, or he wonders just how long it will take for his kid to start hitting like (insert pro’s name here). We love the enthusiasm. In fact it would be nice to see more parents taking an interest in what their kids are doing, and hitting the ball is, of course, important. But, I am always perplexed at how so much time gets invested in beautiful swings while moving to the ball, so that hitting the ball at all becomes possible, is a distant afterthought. So, now for the free piece of advice.
Tennis footwork is more than just moving from A to B quickly. Let’s think about it for a second. If I teach you to sprint to the ball but neglect to show you how to stop and set up for the ball, there is no way you’re going to hit the ball. Likewise, and kids do this all the time, once you do hit the ball you can’t just stand there in utter shock and awe watching your beautiful shot. No, you can’t, because that ball is most likely going to make a return visit. That means you not only need speed but also anticipation, concentration, and coordination. This, folks, is what takes years to master. A swing? That’s the easy part. Moving well and anticipating is the harder bit.
The First Step: How to Think about A Tennis Court
You may wonder how you can learn anticipation. The easy answer is just ‘experience’. But, you can help yourself immensely by thinking of the court as a very tipsy, big rectangular boat floating in calm water; if it is even slightly out of balance it will capsize and sink. Say, for instance, that you have to run to get a ball, and it pushes you towards, or even beyond, the doubles court. Considering that you’re on a tipsy boat, the last thing you want to do is run past your mark. What you do want to do is stop a few feet from the ball, reach, and pluck it out of the air, then, quickly get back to the center before your boat goes bottoms up. The key concept here is recovery. The only thing balancing your boat is you and your opponent; wherever you are on the court, your opponent is going to have to counterbalance – and vice versa. The boat analogy isn’t perfect though because when two players are in perfect balance what they get is a neutral rally; what each player really wants is to be in command of the point. Here’s what it looks like to be in a neutral rally.
To use another analogy, with both of you constantly in motion, tennis becomes a dance. It’s a dance wherein the object is to get your partner out of rhythm. The one who is more frequently out of balance/rhythm is the one who loses.
In the end, the point that should be taken away is this: No matter how pretty you swing a racquet, it doesn’t do you much good if the ball is somewhere else. If you’re a parent who’s interested in getting your kid involved in tennis, do not be shocked if, when you watch a class, your child’s racquet is lying somewhere off the court and your kid is jumping around with the instructor doing what, on first glance, looks nothing like tennis. Footwork is tennis. It’s just the sad, lonely cousin of topspin and follow through.