The following is a page from The Fault Tolerant Forehand, available in eBook and paperback formats on Amazon (click here).
A full hip rotation is impossible if both of your feet are firmly planted on the ground. Trying to rotate your hips while your feet stay planted will put a large amount of torsion force on your knees and ankles; don’t do it.
Therefore, your feet will need to come off the ground, at least partially, in order to hit a proper forehand. Each of these footwork patterns is simply a manifestation of letting the feet move freely. The feet naturally want to get out of the way when you rotate your hips; your brain knows not to send that torsion force into your ankles.
So as long as the player allows their feet to move freely, and doesn’t keep them locked to the ground, these patterns will occur naturally. That said, it’s still worthwhile to learn what these patterns are, what they look like, and when to use them. Unconscious competence can only get you so far; in the end, every athlete should know why they’re doing what they’re doing, even if they do it naturally, so that they can replicate it on command.
Here are the four common patterns by which the feet move to allow hip rotation.
1. The Non-hitting Foot Comes Up
This is one of the most common footwork patterns used during the hip twist. The non-hitting foot comes up off the ground, while the hitting foot remains on the ground. As the player twists their body around, they rotate on the ball of the hitting foot, and the non-hitting foot doesn’t restrict this rotation at all, since it’s in the air.
This is a great footwork pattern for rally balls and neutral balls. Typically, a player can’t move forward into the court using this footwork pattern, so other patterns are used to twist on shorter, slower balls.
2. The Player Pivots On Both Feet
The double foot pivot is most useful when the player’s weight is moving forward, likely because they’re looking to be aggressive. If a player wants to follow their shot through into the net, then picking the front foot off the ground and rotating about the back foot isn’t a great option; that won’t generate any sort of forward momentum through the shot.
Instead, the better option is to pick both heels off the ground and simply allow the feet to twist along with the hips as they rotate. This footwork pattern works very well on aggressive shots from the baseline and on approach shots inside the court, since, on both of those kinds of shots, the player wants to transfer their weight to their front (non-hitting) foot and take the ball early.
This stance is stable and low impact. It doesn’t require jumping off the ground, and works particularly well when returning slow, low balls like slices. On every full forehand swing, a hip twist is required, but due to the nature of a low ball, it would be very difficult to get either of the feet off the ground while striking it. Thus, for low balls, picking both heels up and pivoting on the balls of both feet works best.
3. The Hitting Foot Comes Up and Kicks Back
Another aggressive footwork pattern that’s commonly used when a player wishes to come forward involves a conscious drive off the hitting leg. The player initiates their twist by driving so hard off the hitting leg that it comes up off the ground, and as the player subsequently twists their hips, this off-the-ground hitting foot naturally kicks back behind them.
It’s extremely important that the player’s non-hitting foot is not restricted during this process, as, again, if it’s firmly planted on the ground, an ankle snapping amount of torsion force is going into that ankle (or maybe the knee).
A common, natural way to handle the large amount of force placed on the front (non-hitting) foot during this pattern is to allow it to come up off the ground as the force pulls it.
This particular footwork pattern, often known as the “hop step,” is a favorite of Roger Federer when hitting approach shots. Don’t be misled by the name, though. There is no conscious “hop” in the traditional sense; the player doesn’t try to hop off the front foot at any point, but rather just allows the forces that want to pull the foot off the ground during the follow-through to do so.
4. Both Feet Come Off the Ground
There are two different applications for the both-feet-off-the-ground forehand that are pretty disparate in nature. The first is if the player is lightly on the run – not on the dead run, but still required to hit without setting their feet.
In this case, it’s usually optimal for the player to perform a small jump as they rotate their hips back towards the target. This allows their feet their full range of freedom during the twist. Having the feet in contact with the ground while moving sideways and twisting the hips is a recipe for injury, and it’s best avoided by taking a small jump when striking a forehand on the move.
The second case is when the player wants to hit a shot really, really hard, and both legs are driving so hard off the ground they’re going to fly off of it. This shot is most commonly used on high, slow, short balls, and it’s very effective when executed correctly.
The important thing to remember about the jumping forehand is that all the tension is in the legs and trunk, and none of the tension is in the arm or hand. The exterior links in the kinetic chain must stay completely relaxed in order to efficiently transfer the force from the prime movers into the racket.