Movement on the tennis court might be the most important aspect of the modern game. That is a bold statement considering the overwhelming majority of players spend most of their practice time focusing exclusively on technique.
Consider these figures…
A ball that is traveling at 60 miles per hour is moving at a rate of 88 feet per second. That means if you hit the ball down the line at 60 mph it gets there in less than a second, assuming it has enough topspin to keep it inside the lines.
Since the NFL started implementing electric timing of the 40-yard dash the record holder is Chris Johnson. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.24 seconds, which equates to moving at a rate of 28.3 feet per second.
If we put Chris Johnson, who owns the fastest 40-yard dash, on the singles sideline and hit the ball down the line at 60 mph he would make it just before the ball got there!
Think about the implications of all these numbers. Johnson obviously possesses world-class speed and he is just barely making it there in time. What about younger athletes who are not at the world-class level of speed? Also consider that 60 mph ball down the line is not even that fast considering there are professionals striking the ball well in excess of 100 mph. Andy Murray hit a blistering forehand at 124mph in Cincinnati last summer!
Naturally as players improve the speed at which they rally from the ground increases. The technology of rackets and strings also continue to enhance the speed at which players can hit the ball. This is all wonderful until the rally tempo becomes so fast the athlete can no longer get to balls. It is absolutely critical for developing players to improve both their movement and ball striking skills in unison. Tremendous ball striking skills are great if you can literally hit so fast that you can blow an opponent off the court. When an opponent has fairly equal ball striking ability the difference is movement. The player who moves better is the one who will perform better.
This ball striking and movement conundrum is often very apparent in the younger age divisions of junior tournament play. In the younger age groups typically the players who are the best ball strikers tend to win the most. However, as age progresses, other players “catch up” and ball striking skills tend to level out. This is the point where the players who move well now have the advantage. Many times the players who were successful in the younger age categories try to compensate in the older groups by attempting to hit the ball harder. The problem is you can only hit the ball so hard and it is a scenario of diminishing returns. Their time would be better spent improving movement around the court.
I tell players they are in a race with the ball. If a player beats the ball there, then they have the opportunity to return a high quality shot. If a player gets there at the same time as the ball, they will not be able to setup and end up hitting a weak reply. Finally, if the ball beats them there then obviously they lost the point.
You cannot defy the laws of physics and the math above proves it. So what are the keys to moving well on the court? Have an explosive first step, proper recovery positioning, good anticipatory skills, be able to hit open-stance on both sides, and have efficient footwork patterns that facilitate both quickness and maximize ball striking.