Tennis Footwork: Cross Over or Shuffle? Yes!
It's one of the most repeated pieces of advice I hear parents who are practicing with their junior players say: “lots of little steps!” Another version of this is “shuffle step to the ball!” It's certainly well intended advice. How can you really fault the idea of keeping the feet moving? However even at the youngest junior levels of tournament play (8u and 10u), this advice isn't what the player really needs. Here's the footwork pattern ATP & WTA Pros use: long steps to move long distance, short steps to cover short distance.
The idea of using the maximum amount of little steps for all shots and at all times (which is what a junior player will try to do if you deal out this advice), is not what the Pros are doing. If they were, they'd all be twice as exhausted and injured than they already get! Let's take a look at what two of the best movers in tennis history are doing:
This is current ATP #1 Novak Djokovic practicing groundstrokes, and his practice partner has one directive: move him from side to side as much as possible. Notice that when Novak's moving from his starting position (typically the hash mark) out to an incoming cross court groundstroke, he's using long cross steps to get there. There's no shuffle steps going on at all. If he did, he'd never get there in time. However the shuffle step is not dead. It's absolutely necessary to use the short shuffle step to make quick adjustment steps when covering a short distance. You see Novak using the shuffle step when he's moving from halfway between sideline and hash mark back to the hash mark. That would be considered a short distance in tennis footwork terms. Any movement needed past that halfway point between hash mark and sideline, he uses the longer cross step. He also uses to recover back to the hash mark after the hit.
Here's another smooth mover:
At no point is he “taking lots of little steps.” He takes big steps when he needs to move big distances, and then uses the minimum amount of small steps to balance himself before the next incoming ball. So after he's moved out wide (first with a cross step, then flat out running), and recovered (first with a cross step, then a run step), the shuffle steps will be used to get him back into a split step position, ready for the next shot. So there's a time for long steps, and a time for small steps. But there's never a time to waste steps!