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Defending Your Court: Defending with Your Footwork
By:  Scott Baker | Tennis4you  | Tennis Forum  | E-mail

..."against the experts in defense, the enemy does not know where to attack". - Sun TZU, "The Art of War"

Slow and lazy footwork will not allow you to defend your court well, and can be the result of poor defense. If you cannot move to the ball you cannot be a good defensive player, plain and simple. Luckily you do not have to be fast to be effective. Proper footwork can keep you in the game and always a step ahead.

One of the more important aspects of footwork is to never be on your heels. You always need to be on your toes and be ready to return any shot. The second before your opponent strikes the ball you need to "split step". The split step is the first reaction to every shot your opponent hits. The split step is a maneuver performed when you jump up an inch or two onto your toes, as your opponent is about to hit his/her shot. Your feet should be shoulder width apart, and your knees should be slightly bent when you land. This body position keeps you off of your heels and allows you to be ready to move quickly to any spot on the court. The split step should be used when you are returning serves, ground strokes, volleys, overheads and when you are approaching the net for a volley. Getting in the habit of the split step will always help you to start moving towards the ball quicker each and every time.

Another very important aspect of footwork is to always be moving back to the center of the baseline or net after you hit each shot. You need to avoid hitting the ball and just standing there admiring your shot. Once you hit the ball you must move back to the center and prepare for the next shot. This will keep you on your toes and keep you moving. If you are on the offensive end of the point you may wish to position yourself differently than the center of the court depending on your situation. However, good defense requires you to get back to the middle to defend. The one thing you want to avoid is to try to start to move back to the center of the court before you hit the ball. Some players will start to lean back towards the middle of the court before they hit their shot. When you commit to going back to the center of the court too soon you become off balance and your weight will not be moving into your shot and your shot will not be as effective.

Avoid committing to one side of the court or the other too early when your opponent is setting up for an attacking shot. If your opponent is setting up for an offensive shot, do not run to one side of the court too soon before your opponent hits the ball. If you move too early and you open up the court before your opponent hits the ball you allow your opponent to see the open court and easily put the ball away for a winner.

There is a balance that must be struck for when to move. You have 2 options, before your opponent hits the ball or after they hit the ball. Generally if you are not a sitting duck, it is OK to wait until they hit the ball to start to move in one direction or another. However, there are times when you are on 100% defense, like overheads, or a ball you might of hit short and it sits up high for your opponent. In these types of situations your opponent is in a great position. You will not have time to move far once they hit the ball. In these circumstances you are forced to move to one side or the other in a guessing attempt. Generally it is best to move just before your opponent hits the ball. It is always better to guess and move to one side or the other rather than to just stand there and watch the ball go by. Not only does this give you a chance of guessing right and getting to the ball, this also lets your opponent know that you will not give up, which puts extra pressure on them to hit better shots with the knowledge that you are trying to anticipate their shots.

Putting yourself in the right court position for defense can also help. Players like Nadal and Clijsters will take 1 or two steps backwards when they see they are going to be on the defensive end of a point. This gives them more time to get to the ball. If your opponent is going to hit an overhead you will want to back up as far as you can to give yourself enough time to get to the ball and hope the ball comes back down to a height you can hit it.

Good footwork is important for good defense. Keeping your feet moving not only allows you to get to more balls, but it will keep the pressure on your opponent. Remember, you do not have to be extremely quick to be extremely effective, just have good footwork!

Good Luck on the Court!
Scott Baker