The Split-Step: Why, When, and How

The split-step is an athletic hop done immediately prior to receiving a ball in tennis. The player hops a few inches off the ground and lands with their feet wider than shoulder width apart. The exact height of the hop and width of the landing will vary between situations. The player should both hop from, and land in, an athletic ready position.

It seems simple, and in way it is, but still many players struggle to implement it into their game. This article will explain the split-step in detail, including why it works, how it works, and how to practice it.

Why does the split-step work?

The primary driver of the split-step’s usefulness is that, when you start an explosive movement by first landing, you are able to use the elastic energy from that landing in order to jump start the explosive movement. In tennis, this means that you want to hop as your opponent is hitting, and then land right as you learn where the ball is going. Immediately after you land, begin your movement to the ball, and if you time it right, you get a quickness boost from the landing.

At a biomechanical level, this landing/springing process is very similar to that which occurs while you’re running, and as such, efficient split-steps should feel similar to efficient running steps. Likewise, inefficient split-steps will feel similar to inefficient running steps. Imagine if you were running, but instead of running continuously, you were forced to fully stop on each step and then restart by pushing off from that stopped position. That’s what inefficient split-stepping feels like.

This elastic energy is one of the primary reasons high level players are able to retrieve so many balls. Many recreational players, who receive the ball without split-stepping, have very poor coverage over a singles court. Balls that would be trivial for a higher level player to receive either double-bounce or blow past the non split-stepper. Without the land and spring interaction of the split-step, the amount of court a player can cover drastically decreases.

A Few Other Benefits

In addition to storing and using elastic energy, the split-step neurologically primes the muscles you’ll use to move to the ball. All the same leg and foot muscles that are needed to land from your hop are also needed to press off the ground into your motion. Landing stretches these muscles immediately before they’ll need to contract in order to move you, preparing them to do so.

From a tempo and rhythm standpoint, the split-step is also helpful. It marks a dedicated spot in a player’s receiving loop where they switch from recovering, or waiting, to actively receiving the next ball. It provides a goal for recovery as well: get to where you want to be, and get on balance, such that you can split-step right as your opponent sends you their reply.

Timing The Split-Step

Timing the split-step is a visual process. To figure out how to time yours, work backwards from the goal. The goal is to land, and immediately after landing, utilize the landing itself to explode across the court. This means that, when you land, you need to know where to go.

Jannick Sinner split-steps right as Carlos Alcaraz is about to strike his backhand. As he lands, he knows that the shot is going cross-court.

If you split-step too early, you’ll land, and you still won’t know where the ball is going, so you won’t know where to move yet. You’ll have to wait a second before going, and by waiting, you’ll waste the elastic energy from your landing. Split-step too late, and you won’t have this problem, but you might not get to the ball in time. The ultimate goal, therefore, is to split-step as early as possible, but late enough that you know where to go by the time you land.

The exact timing will vary based on an assortment of factors. Roughly speaking, you want to hop between the time the ball bounces on your opponent’s court, and the time they contact it, but that suggestion is nothing more than a general guide to get you started – the actual process is that you are watching their hitting rhythm and splitting such that you can land and explode at the earliest possible time.

Training the Split-Step

In order to split-step effectively, a player needs to land efficiently. They need to recruit their hips, knees, and feet in order to seamlessly integrate the elastic energy from their landing into their next move. The energy is stored only momentarily, in the athlete’s muscles and tendons, upon hitting the ground, and it will be quickly dissipated as heat if not immediately used. If the player pushes off quickly enough, the energy will be released as part of the movement, but if they delay too long, the energy will be lost, and they’ll be no better off than if they hadn’t split-stepped at all.

Efficient Landing and Running

Natural athletes tend to have very little issue learning the split-step. Explain it as “hop right before you receive the ball,” and they tend to perform it quite well. They hop, and then that hop dramatically speeds up their movement.

An intuitive understanding of landing is far from universal, though. Many have a very poor sense for exactly how their legs and feet are supposed to interact with the ground to absorb force. Modern footwear is primarily to blame for this. If a person is used to absorbing the impacts on their feet via a cushioned sole, they become worse at absorbing those impacts with their actual body. The entire foot-calf-knee-hip apparatus gets less coordinated neurologically, due to lack of practice, and also weaker physically, due to atrophy from a lack of stress. The result is an epidemic of people who actually can’t properly land without first putting in a non-trivial amount of work to relearn how.

Learning to Land

Running, or even better, barefoot running, is one of the best tools to relearn how to efficiently strike the ground. Plyometric drills are also great. Here’s my favorite progression for teaching the split-step:

1. The Landing Position

The proper human landing position is with the knees and hips slightly bent. Most students understand that they need to bend their knees, but many do not further understand they need to hinge at the hips.

Roger Federer landing from a split step. He is bent at both the knees, and the hips, and both bends help to absorb and transfer the force of the landing into his next movement.

To start practicing this landing position, simply pick your feet up, and then land in it. As you get better at feeling the double bend, your landings should get softer and softer. Ideally, you should be able to land and barely hear your shoes hitting the floor.

2. Absorbing More Energy

Once you’ve found the landing position, start jumping, instead of just picking your feet up. Again, the goal is to feel the landing force being easily absorbed by your feet, knees, and leg muscles as you hit the ground. The better you feel, the higher you should jump. Jump multiple times in a row, attempting to connect each jump to the landing of the previous one.

Landing softly isn’t a binary – you don’t land soft or hard, but instead, you can land softer or harder, depending on how good you are at it. Move your focus around your body. Figure out what your feet are doing, what your knees are doing, and what your thighs and butt are doing. Experiment with each one, and use the sound and feeling of your landing as your cues to guide you to efficiency. Some people are landing naturals, but for most, it’ll take consistent practice to get really good at it.

3. Single Foot Landings

Once you’re happy with your two-foot landings, switch to one. The landing position is the same, except now it’s only one foot hitting the ground, one knee that’s bent, and one hip that you’re hinging over. Do the same thing: start by picking up your foot and then landing, and then work towards jumping continuously, and jumping higher and higher.

4. The Split-Step Drill

Now we’re going to mix landings. Hop on your right foot, your left foot, and then both feet. Land in your split-step stance on the two-foot landing, and then immediately hop again, landing back on a single-foot. It’s a three hop pattern: left-right-both, left-right-both, with no breaks between landings. Your goal is to bounce as elastically as possible from one hop into the next. The less total time your feet spend on the ground during this exercise, the better you’re doing.

Specifically, when it comes to the two-footed hop, really try to feel the interaction and bounce off the ground. This is the movement pattern you need to master, because it’s the one you’ll be using on the tennis court. It should feel like your feet hit the ground for only an instant, then explode off of it and into the next hop automatically (again, like a running step), without you having to think.

Variation in Height and Width

In general, split-step higher and narrower when you’re on defense, farther back in the court, and split-step lower and wider on offense, close to the baseline or at the net. The more defensive your position, the more important it is to generate high landing force and use it to explode laterally. On offense, on the other hand, it’s less likely you’ll have to sprint sideways, but more likely you’ll have to take small, quick, accurate adjustment steps, or play the ball almost immediately after landing.

Implementing a split-step will help you feel balanced, agile, and quick as you prepare to receive a ball. Every great player does it. Practice your landings, and pay attention to your opponent’s hitting rhythm when you receive, and you can, too.


  1. eric
    April 3, 2024

    Great article! This explore a new perspective on split step!

    As you said that “To figure out how to time yours, work backwards from the goal”, so does it mean that when we are in volley position at the net or receiving serve, we should normally perform split step prior to opponent contact the ball?

    1. Johnny (FTF)
      April 4, 2024

      Good question. It depends a lot on what you expect from your opponent. If they have an easy shot, and they’re going to blast it past you (or at you), then I’d recommend not even split-stepping. Just hop in place, very low, and very wide, until they hit. Normally, as long as you have time to react, the same principle applies at the net, or on serve return, as it does anywhere else: you want to land right as you know where the ball is going. This almost always requires hopping before your opponent’s contact, and landing some time during the ball’s early flight.

  2. Anonymous
    April 6, 2024

    Glad to see another article. As always, a comprehensive look at an aspect of tennis that most people may not consider.


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