Fancy feet

My practice sessions are intense: crosscourt groundstrokes, grueling points played from the baseline, and the dreaded “figure 8s.” One player lofts balls down the line, the other sprints into the corners to hit crosscourt replies. My legs burn. I heave big, ragged breaths.

I do a lot of running, but I can’t say that I’m practicing my footwork. The footwork is simply a component of the stroke. When I step into a forehand, I open up my hips and bring around my back leg as the racket whips through the hitting zone, then shuffle-step back toward the midpoint of my opponent’s likely angle of response. Not much footwork to practice.

Or is there? I wonder, especially when I’m backed off the baseline by a heavy topspin groundstroke that kicks into my body. I’m jammed. I pop up a desperate shot that lands in the middle of the court, or flail at the ball and knock it long. I sigh in frustration, and berate myself for being too lazy to move. But maybe lazy has nothing to do with it. Maybe it’s my footwork. Maybe I need to learn a pattern of movement that would put me in a position to take the ball in my hitting zone.

I’ve been rethinking footwork as a discrete skill after reading Federer Exerts His Power From the Ground Up in the New York Times. Ballet dancers see some of themselves in Federer’s footwork. Federer and his trainer Pierre Paganini developed exercises specific to on-court footwork, almost as if he were learning the foxtrot at an Arthur Murray dance studio. And one trainer, at least, is trying to make a name for himself as a footwork guru.

The humble rec player doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to practice footwork. Frankly, it’s a little boring. If you take a lesson a week, you don’t want to spend 30 or 45 minutes with a pro playing a game of Twister. You want to hit some balls. And I’m not sure many of us would care to spend a lot of time watching pro footwork on video, either, unless the subject were Radek Stepanek, and he started rocking the worm.

As the New York Times article suggests, however, some people are starting to wonder whether we need to devote as much time to footwork as to forehands. Count me among them.

–A. Clarke


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