A split step is the foundation of footwork in tennis. It requires very precise timing in relation to the moment when your opponent hits the ball.
That’s why it’s quite challenging to master.
But if you time the split step well, it can help you move much quicker off the mark because your legs will already be bent and loaded at the moment you recognize the direction of the ball.
One of the most common instructions in tennis when it comes to split step is that you need to hop/jump as your opponent hits the ball.
That is partly true, but you can easily misinterpret what that means and do it incorrectly.
Most players will interpret this as first waiting to see the opponent hit the ball. Then, as they see it, they will initiate the split step.
But that’s way too late.
In fact, you need to be already pushing off the ground as your opponent makes contact with the ball.
The split step begins a split second before the opponent makes contact with the ball.
Based on my hops in the video above, I initiated them about 0.08 seconds before my opponent hit the ball.
Therefore, you cannot really ask yourself when you should jump because you cannot consciously track such a short amount of time.
Instead, you should focus on the landing from the split step.
You need to land exactly when you realize where your opponent’s ball is going.
At that moment of landing, your legs will be bent and loaded like springs and help you push off in the direction of the ball very quickly.
That’s the whole purpose of the split step – it helps us move much quicker into that first step towards the ball.
This theoretical knowledge of how to split step correctly won’t help you much yet. That’s why you’ll learn some very practical drills that will help you master it later in this article.
But let’s first see how to properly execute a good split step in tennis.
There are two keys to effective split steps that help you move very quickly towards the ball:
1. One foot and two feet push off
Many players tend to initiate the split step from both feet on the ground because they know they will land on both feet – so they think that’s the way to go.
But that’s not the only way to initiate a split step. You can in fact also initiate it by pushing off one foot, just like most players do when they return a serve.
I personally use the one foot push off much more often than pushing off with both feet. However, the two foot push off happens, too, especially if I am recovering back to the middle.
So, I highly recommend that you experiment with different types of pushing off into the split step and see which ones feels best to you.
2. The height of the “jump”
While we often times say that we jump or hop into the split step, that jump is actually very low.
I’ve shown graphically in the image below how little height I gained with the split step from my usual athletic position while playing.
So, the split step is not really a high jump. It’s just a little hop that helps us re-establish balance, stop our momentum from the previous movement (so that we cannot be wrong footed) and load our legs as we land.
The landing position is much lower than my usual athletic position, and that’s something most recreational tennis players don’t do well.
They tend to “save their legs” from much work, but they then miss out on the explosive power loaded legs give us in that first step towards the ball.
A low position at the end of the split step tells us that the feet are wide enough, which helps us with balance.
In addition, the position ensures the legs are bent enough, which suggests that they are loaded like springs and ready to push us explosively towards the ball if we need to move quickly.
There are various drills that can help you improve the efficiency of your split steps. Below, I’ve listed those that I use regularly and that have proven to be very effective in teaching a quick and effective split step.
1. Jump rope
Jumping with a jump rope gives you the experience of a very short touch with the ground and a quick push off the ground, which is exactly what happens when you do a good split step.
While the feet are not apart like in a real split, it still helps us get that feel and timing of low and quick jumps that happen when we split step in a match.
Jump rope is one of the training aids that must be in the tennis bag of every serious tennis player.
Fast forward to 1:00 to see Nadal warming up with a jump rope
2. Split hops on the line
Since we often push off into the split step off one foot, you can use this drill to get used to that foot sequence and to actually warm up before your tennis sessions.
Jump from one foot to both and back again, alternating which single foot you use. So, the sequence is: left – both – right – both – left – both … and so on.
You can use one of the lines on the tennis court to help you with the accuracy of your hops. Try to land on the line when using one foot and land with both feet on each side of the line.
3. Split, toss and catch/hit
This is a drill that I always use to help players feel the effect of a well-timed split step.
Because the player needs to be in the air when they recognize the direction of the ball and because it’s so difficult for them to time the initial hop correctly in the early learning stages, I help them by asking them to hop in the air first and then I toss the ball away from them.
I toss the ball exactly when they leave the ground, and they need to catch it with their hands. (They progress to hitting the ball with the racquet in the second stage.)
That way, I ensure that they are in the air when they recognize the direction of the ball and that they are already preparing to push off in the direction of the ball as they are landing from that hop into a split step.
They will then feel how much this helped them move quicker towards the ball, which gives them a reference point or, better said, a reference feel.
4. Time the split step on your own
Once I ask them to time the initial hop on their own when I hit the ball first, they know what they should feel when they land into the split step.
They will then know quite clearly whether they were too early or too late with their hop. Through repetition, they will start to adjust and become better at timing the initial hop into a split step.
I therefore recommend that you practice in the same way:
If you’re having trouble timing the split step well after these drills, you can try saying out loud “hop” and executing that initial hop as your opponent makes contact with the ball.
It’s not exactly what happens in reality, but it is a good approximation of the timing of the split step and can help you pay more attention to the moment of contact on the other side of the net.
And lastly, don’t forget to move lightly on your feet after you hit the ball as it will be much easier to perform a good split step from that state.
Note Federer’s split steps and the little “dance” after he completes each stroke
I have often seen a player hit the ball and then stand there while observing their own shot.
If you don’t immediately recover to your ideal recovery position in the court, you’re going to lose a lot of time and space once you have to start moving to the ball that your opponent has hit.
It will also be very unlikely that you’ll time your split step well – if you do one at all.
So keep dancing (happy feet!) on the court after each shot you make and pay attention to the right timing of your split step.
You’ll soon realize how much quicker you can move towards the ball and how much time you can buy yourself to execute a well-timed and controlled stroke.