The Role of Footwork in the Effortless Swing

We all know there is no one right or correct way to hit a tennis ball because if that were the case then when we watched say Federer versus Nadal both players would look the same! But they don't! And this is true even for the same player in different situations.

However there are common denominators many of the tour players share regardless of their individual styles or how they look.
A frequent question I hear from my students goes something like this, “The pros always seem to make their strokes look so effortless. Is it just their swings or does footwork play a role too?”

One reason professionals make the game look effortless is because they practice doing so, over and over and over again! So, let’s not minimize the importance and value of “repetitive hitting.” To groove their strokes, pros literally hit tens of thousands of balls both in practice and competitive play. Regardless of how much tennis you watch or read about, there is no substitute for being on a tennis court and hitting.

Second, the contact point is more important than the swing! This is one of those common denominators…The pros, like all of you, have a wide range of preparations and follow-throughs but what is remarkably consistent is their contact area — that moment when the ball meets the strings.

I have seen people with a all kinds of odd looking swings, some no more than a couple of feet from start to finish, yet they almost never mishit the ball while others with the classic “take the racquet back and follow-through” long swings, mishit half their shots! The difference between the two is what is happening in the contact zone.
So, what role does footwork have in “effortless” strokes?


As with any sport, the most important aspect with feet in general is balance! If you are off-balance whether, throwing a football, shooting a basketball or hitting a tennis ball, the upper body mechanics will become more difficult to control and you will be more likely to make mistakes or errors. Likewise if you are balanced as you swing a tennis racquet the odds increase dramatically for more positive results.

In my teaching experiences, one of the single greatest contributing factors to inconsistent hitting (being off-balance) is when people try to do exactly the same thing for each shot with their feet!?! It is like they have a checklist in their brain of what they have to do.

When this happens it is going to cause problems with the swing of the racquet. Trying to do the same movements with the feet on a ball coming to you at 70 mph versus 10 mph is more often than not going to put you out of position which will then translate into a change in the swing path, speed, and comfort level!

So the obvious question then becomes how should tennis players achieve balance when they swing?

If you are balanced (Which most people are) the majority of the time…then forget about the feet in terms of their needing to be in a specific location to hit a certain shot.

As the videos in this article show, sometimes shots are hit closed stance or open stance or with the lower body open but the upper body closed, or even stretched wide like Federer, the pros seem to get themselves in the optimal position to strike the ball. And that is the key — when you can get to the ball in a position where you are balanced and it is in your strike zone, the chances of making good contact are increased exponentially.

All the professionals are trying to do is make sure they are “set up” well before they start their racquet swing. And as you can see, being “set up” well is when you are balanced. But as the videos show, their feet are in a wide variety of positions and locations.

Connecting the Feet with the Racquet Swing

Even if you "forget about the feet," obviously, the lower body and upper body are not completely independent of each other as we play tennis. There are two aspects of "effortless" hitting which the professionals do on a consistent basis.

  1. Unless they are in an extreme emergency situation, as they get closer to the point of where they will make contact with the ball the steps and movement of the feet become more compact and smaller. Initially when they recognize what shot they will be hitting, either a forehand or backhand, the first step or two may be bigger or longer in order to get moving in the right direction then gradually becoming shorter as they make the small adjusting steps to get themselves in to an optimal hitting position.

  2. The desired “hitting motion” if you will is for the feet and hands / racquet to move around the same speed. We have all experienced a “rushed swing” when the feet are relatively still, but the ball comes to us at a much higher rate of speed than we anticipated so, to catch up to it, we swing fast!

If you are in a little bit of trouble and have to move your feet quickly or even turn and run, think, "fast feet and slow arm." This will help you maintain control of the ball and remain balanced! Too often players swing as fast as they are moving their feet and the ball is quickly out of control.

Get Comforable Playing Neutral Tennis

If you are playing someone in singles and both of you are at an equal level, then 70% of the time you will be in “neutral." This means neither player has an advantage. Watch Federer versus Nadal, the majority of time they are in “neutral.” At least until one player finds a ball he can go on the offensive with.

At the professional level the best players are patient and are content when they are in “neutral.” This in part contributes to the consistentancy of their strokes.

But, like us mere mortals, even at the pro level players sometimes become impatient with neutral tennis. Say the ball has been hit 7-8 times back and forth across the net, players start to think they need “to do something” because the point is lasting “too long.” Often they take a neutral situation and try to go on the offense. In part this usually means changes in their footwork, racquet swing, ball speed and / or direction! Then they wonder why the shot and their tactics did not go as planned!? Too many changes at once.

Instead, it is okay to be in neutral tennis and this can also mean staying in control with your footwork as well as your racquet!