Everybody knows the phrase “hand-eye coordination”. What’s more important in tennis is eye-foot coordination. Like all true sports, tennis is played from the ground up.
Yes, you’ve also heard the phrase “move your feet.” Very true. In all sports, good foot movement is critical. But what does “good foot movement” really mean?
In tennis, it means adjusting your body position relative to where you believe the ball WILL BE when you hit it. The biggest problem most untrained players have is not being in the right position to hit the ball. Most of the time they wind up being jammed-the “elbow in your rib cage” feeling. Quite often, they wind up lunging a bit for the ball, or not being on balance through the stroke.
Whether you hit the old-fashioned way (step across with the forward foot into a “closed” stance) or the new way (an open stance with less extension in your stroke), you still need to step into your stroke and follow through. That means you need to be a certain distance away from the ball to your side when you begin the stroke, or you will encounter one of those problems due to improper distance.
What does “a certain distance” mean? It depends on how you hit. In the old days, I used to tell my female students they want to be five feet away from where they think they will hit the ball, and the men six feet. WOW! Sounds like a lot.
Well, if you use a closed stance, you just ate up a foot and a half when you went from the “ready position” (facing square to the net ready to go in either direction) to the forehand or backhand stance. From the grip of the racket to the center of the strings is approximately another two feet, perhaps a little more. By the time you fully extend your arm and hit the ball in front of your body (as you should do!), you’ve added another foot or so of extension.
If you use the open stance, the distance is obviously less, but you still want to be away from the ball when you hit or you’ll be jammed. However, you don’t want to be so far that you’re lunging as opposed to extending properly.
Practice very slowly and learn the best distance you want to be from the ball before you start your stroke. Have someone gently toss balls to your side; turn, extend and stroke. When you find the comfortable distance, practice it more rigorously. In the heat of battle, you can adjust up to six inches closer or a foot farther away, but really not much more than that.
So we get back to the eye-foot coordination. When practicing strokes, evaluate where the ball will hit on the court as it comes toward you. Then use that great foot movement, first a few big steps to get in the approximate position and then a bunch of little steps to adjust more exactly, to get to your optimum distance away from the ball. The more you practice setting up at the proper distance from where you believe the ball with land, the more consistent your shots will become; it’s easy to hit a good shot when you’re a comfortable distance from the ball and your body is on balance.