Why go airborne in the split step?

1stVolley

Semi-Pro
The necessity of the split step is universally acknowledged. However, there are two kinds of split steps: the standard kind where the player goes airborne for a couple of inches before sinking down and loading the leg muscles and the kind where the player just sinks down and loads the leg muscles without going airborne. Obviously going airborne will add some acceleration and, hence, additional loading. But how much does that additional loading really matter? And, in particular, is there much of a disadvantage split stepping without going airborne during a rally (as opposed to during the service return)?

I think there are two small disadvantages to going airborne: it takes more energy than simply sinking down in the split step and it takes more time to execute than not going airborne. The energy difference might matter over the course of a long match, esp. if you're not as young as you used to be.

When I've experimented with my movement with these two kinds of split steps, I don't experience a great advantage to going airborne. Also, the leg loading seems to benefit forward motion the most and lateral motion less. The main benefit of split stepping seems to be getting on the balls of your feet and not starting movement flat footed.

Your thoughts?
 

Curious

Legend
There are different degrees. Djokovic for example is much less airborne than Federer or Murray.
So much so that in a practice video there was a little disagreement between him and the coach Vajda whether he split stepped or not on one of the serve returns, Vajda claiming he didn’t split.
 

1stVolley

Semi-Pro
You go airborne so you can be weightless at the moment your opponent hits the ball. That allows you to pivot in midair, land on your outside leg, and push off in the direction you need to go.
It seems to me that it is just as easy to pivot if you're on the ground but on the balls of your feet.
 

MyFearHand

Rookie
From a physics perspective it's going to be easier to start moving once you're already moving. So going airborne seems better. Also, if basically every pro player, college players, good junior player you watch goes airborne then this is probably the right way to do it. Can you get away with not doing it? Yes to a certain level of play you definitely can.
 

BevelDevil

Hall of Fame
One key difference is the amount of knee bend you will have at time of moving to the ball. If you simply sink down, you may end up with more knee bend than is optimal.

Another difference is what's happening to your muscles. In a traditional split step, your leg muscles momentarily relax in mid-air, then tighten as you hit the ground and move. In the "sink down" method, there's a risk that your muscles never relax (if you drop down slower than gravity), so you'll be less explosive.

Combining both considerations, at the least it seems that the sink-down method might be more fatiguing, or prone to break down when fatigued.

I'm glad you asked this because this question crossed my mind recently when coaching my kid.
 

travlerajm

G.O.A.T.
There are different degrees. Djokovic for example is much less airborne than Federer or Murray.
So much so that in a practice video there was a little disagreement between him and the coach Vajda whether he split stepped or not on one of the serve returns, Vajda claiming he didn’t split.
I usually know when I have forgotten to split. It's when my friend's 91 mph wide serve is whizzing by for an ace.
 
When answering questions on what to do, one data point is what the best players in the world are doing. That is often available in high speed videos. For issues that can be seen in high speed videos - such as the jump height in the split step - that information is available. This is a general approach to establishing tennis facts.

To observe what is being done, keep in mind mostly what is being done by the average performance of the better ATP or WTA players. To answer a question like the OP look at 10 better ATP players and see if they become airborne, by how much and under what circumstances. Statistics will apply, for example, 8 out of 10 jump 1-4" off the ground after serve or when their opponent is hitting an aggressive shot and they have not been under pressure from running. Define some categories such as unweighting feet on ground, feet off ground < 2", < 5" etc.

An interesting issue would be to determine when ATP players do split steps and when they choose not to or can't.

I have taken this video approach for many issues and it seems to provide the most reliable information that is available on many issues. It will take time to find clear high speed videos that show what you want to know.
 
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1stVolley

Semi-Pro
From a physics perspective it's going to be easier to start moving once you're already moving. So going airborne seems better. Also, if basically every pro player, college players, good junior player you watch goes airborne then this is probably the right way to do it. Can you get away with not doing it? Yes to a certain level of play you definitely can.
I'm not sure that if every pro, college and junior is doing something that it is necessarily the right or best thing to do. Back in the day most everyone used a Continental grip. Even with the smaller racquet heads then used, an Eastern forehand grip would have the better way to go. Players had to first outgrow the Continental.

Also, from a physics perspective, it's easier to change directions if you are not moving or not moving in that direction initially.
 

E46luver

Semi-Pro
I'm not sure that if every pro, college and junior is doing something that it is necessarily the right or best thing to do. Back in the day most everyone used a Continental grip. Even with the smaller racquet heads then used, an Eastern forehand grip would have the better way to go. Players had to first outgrow the Continental.
Well said. Every pro, college, and junior used to serve and volley. Watch McEnroe deal with awkward defensive volleys at his feet. Terrible, just terrible. Today, that style looks ridiculous and no one does it. Today's pros are doing many things that won't be done 40 years from now also
 
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