I had a problem with one of my students that drove me loco. An otherwise quick 12-year-old boy was confusingly slow on the court. One of the fastest sprinters in our program, he was slow and disorganized with in his movements. I was stumped until a friend of mine hinted I should look at his split-step.
The most undervalued skill a great player has mastered is the split-step. Have you ever heard an announcer on TV or coach, or a player say, "Wow, what a great split-step?” The lack of a good split plagues the rest of the playing universe. Just watch hackers. At our public courts, I have seen a few decent forehands, a lot of good drop shots and lobs (as well as guys playing in old business suits and raccoon skin caps), but good splits are nowhere to be found. Look at your club. Nothing but dead feet as their opponent hits the ball.
“Simply put, a great split-step enables the potential for an explosive, quick and balanced first step to the ball.”
Now watch the pros. Besides not seeing many fur caps, you will likely see everyone splitting (with varying degrees of excellence of course). In my mind, it is quite simply the most overlooked aspect of the game by coaches. This deceptive and complicated skill demands more attention.
Why is it so important? Simply put, a great split-step enables the potential for an explosive, quick and balanced first step to the ball.
How can you get your pro to say "great split," or what should teaching pros look for?
1. A wide base with good posture: The base should be just wider than the hips when landing with slightly bent knees and the core centered directly above the hips. Venus Williams has extraordinary width, particularly on the return of serve. Christina McHale often bends excessively at the waist, thus inhibiting efficient movement, particularly to her forehand side. The width and bend of the knees is wider when at net. Watch old films of Stefan Edberg … he was the best!
2. Timing: Every teaching pro and player worth their weight in salt knows the split-step should occur when their opponent makes contact. By making a small jump at the time of contact, a player's weight is neutralized, and therefore, they can decide which way to go when he or she lands. The timing changes dramatically when you or your opponent comes to the net. Watch intermediate players try to drill with one person at net. Everyone appears slower. It's usually because the timing of the split-step is off. If the rhythm of a split when both players are back is a waltz then when one player comes forward, it’s a fast rock song. Pete Sampras was the best guy I ever played at adjusting his timing. This often meant that he split very far back in no man's land when he served and volleyed, but was closer than most when he made contact.
3. Pay attention to the height and stay on your toes as much as possible: The split gets the player’s weight going with the small jump. This movement makes the first step much easier. Think of how it's much easier to move something heavy (I am speaking of me here!) once you get it moving even just a bit. The higher the jump, the more energy you produce that can help the first step. Obviously though, the height needs to be limited so that you do not lose time hanging in the air. I once played tennis with former NBA star and legendary leaper Spud Webb, who, at 5' 5", could touch the top of the backboard. He hung in the air way too long. Ironically, Michael Jordan, who I played earlier that day, did no split at all!
Stay on those toes!
That player I mentioned at the top of the article was slow because when he split, he first landed on his toes and then sunk back on his heels before moving. That loss of a split (no pun intended) second was enough to make him snail-like. Always check to see if a player stays up on the balls of their feet. Don't be surprised if a younger person or intermediate player struggles to do this. It takes surprising strength to do and conditioning to maintain throughout a long point. Think of how heavyweight boxers start out a round light on their feet, and at the end of three minutes, are flat-footed. Also, watch out for the dreaded double-split. Often, players will bounce twice or even three times before moving to the ball.
These are just the basics of a good split In the next issue, I will discuss more subtleties and how to develop a great split.
<p>Tim Mayotte was one of the nation’s best tennis players during the 1980s. Twice during the 80s, he finished the year ranked in the world's top 10. Besides reaching the semifinals of Wimbledon and the Australian Open, he also won a Silver Medal in the Olympics and represented his nation in Davis Cup action. For the last decade, Tim has shifted his focus to developing top American players and is currently running Mayotte-Hurst Tennis Academy at the Cunningham Tennis Center with his partners, Lee Hurst and Carl Thorsen. He may be reached by e-mail <a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com</a>.</p>