Timing Of The Split Step and Drills To Master It

Apr 15

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.

The Challenging Timing Of The Split Step

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.

timing of split step

A well timed split step begins just before opponent makes contact

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.

landing into a split step

When I land I already know where the 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.

pushing off towards the ball

… which allows me to quickly push-off towards the ball.

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.

How To Split Step For A Quick Start Off The Mark

There are two keys to effective split steps that help you move very quickly towards the ball:

  • using one foot to push off into the split step most of the time, and
  • not really “jumping” high but rather landing low.

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.

one foot split

I usually initiate a split step off one foot

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.

heights while executing split

Heights before, during and after split step

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.

Split Step Drills

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.

best drill for split step

This drill helps you very quickly feel the benefits of a split step

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:

  • Initiate the hop and have your partner toss you a ball right when you have left the ground.
  • The toss of the ball should be quite far away from you since you will then push off more strongly from the ground towards the ball and really feel the effect of a well-timed split step.
  • You can start first by catching the ball with your hands and later progress to hitting it with the racquet (10-20 repetitions for each situation).
  • You will have a good sense of what a well-timed split step feels like. You can then look for that feel while you rally with your partner cooperatively over the net.

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.

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(9) comments

Athena Cajas April 15, 2016

Hello Tomaz,

This is Athena from Houston. I just saw your video on the split step. Unbelievable as usual. My question is, on the one foot hop,does it matter which foot you use to hop off of? Also,Iam presuming that if your timing is good,it would be hard for an opponent to “wrong foot” you. Is that that a correct assumption.?
On a personal note,I just had a friend move to Thailand. Maybe I can come and work with you when you are in that part of the world again next year and visit her!!!!!! One last thing, if you have not done a video on how to execute a REAL dropshot,I hope that you will. If you have done that send me the link.

    Tomaz April 15, 2016

    Thanks, Athena. I doesn’t matter from which foot you push off but for me it’s mostly the one I would use if I did a long jump in athletics for example.

    I feel better pushing off with my left foot than with my right foot.

    And sure, we do a split step so that our opponent’s cannot wrong-foot us.

    I might be in Singapore again next winter.

    I’ll keep in mind the drop shot…

Iffat Noor Ansari April 16, 2016

I had been waiting for this for soooo long.Thank you Tomaz!

gabriel April 19, 2016

Dear Tomaz,
it’s been a while now since i watch your videos..
I find your concepts and teaching work extraordinary even though it is difficult sometimes to put the drills in practice having little time to play.
In this last post nevertheless it was quite simple to apply the instructions (without drill) and it paid off extremely well !
I’d be happy to take some lessons if you ever come to visit : if i’m not mistaken you haven’t posted any videos shooted in france right ?
Best regards

    Tomaz April 22, 2016

    Thanks a lot, Gabriel. I don’t have videos from France but I do give private lessons in Slovenia so if you’re interested please contact me through the menu on top of the page.

Zac April 28, 2016

Hi Tomaz,

I find it natural to split step when I’m being moved around the court by an agressive player during competetive play, but less so when I’m just rallying with a friend to the center of the court. When the ball is just coming to me, I don’t feel an instinctive need to split step, and when I try to do it in this situation I have more trouble finding the right timing.

Any thoughts on how to incorporate the split step into even the most relaxed situations?

    Tomaz April 28, 2016

    Hi Zac,

    I see your point but the split step should eventually become automatic so that you don’t have to think about it.

    You there should be no decision whether you should split step or not because you’re not even conscious about it.

    But it sounds to me that you haven’t reached that point yet so my advice is to keep pushing yourself to split step lightly all the time and keep dancing on your feet until you feel and realize that it’s much better to have happy feet and constant split steps compared to being flat footed.

Ven March 3, 2017

Hi Tomaz,

As usual brilliant again. I have one question though, I believe as with strokes the Movement also should be natural. We have tons of information going around about the split and everyone acknowledges the importance of it, but it does not happen naturally in most of the recreational players and also the young kids.

I believe setting up the body for the split would make one split naturally without thinking about it. As I have observed multiple times even when you do a split wide, it appears more forced and on numerous other occasions it seems so natural and seamless as if you are gliding into it without thinking.

What could be it or what would make it happen naturally?

As I said I do it many times without even thinking about it and many other times find it hard to do it even when I focusing on trying to do the split.

I guess there might be an explanation. If any one can explain this I believe you are the one.

    Tomaz March 4, 2017

    Hi Ven,

    The split step doesn’t come naturally to those who haven’t played any sports beforehand where lots of movement is involved.

    If one played sports like soccer or basketball or something similar, then their foot coordination is really good and also their reactions to what they see (perception) – like the ball being passed to them or their opponent kicking the ball somewhere and so on.

    So they have the basic building blocks in place: foot coordination and good perception and reactions.

    Split step in tennis is then learned very easily, quickly and comes naturally.

    If you haven’t done any sports like that, then basic building blocks are missing.

    We have to develop them and in the mean time split step doesn’t come easy.

    We have to work with kids for months (in most cases) typically at young age (6-8 years old) for the split step to become instictive and more natural.

    With adults it can take the same time or even longer when they do not come from sporty background.

    Why sometimes the split step comes forced even to you is probably because you think about it or because you are feeling mental pressure in the match and you are becoming more tense.

    So you lose the playfulness and lightness in the feet as hence the split step doesn’t happen naturally.

    In fact looking to find that light split step and moving light on your feet is a great method of relaxing the mind through body activation and overcoming the pressure in a match.

    Hope that answers your question!

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