The racquetball stroke is mechanically the same as the baseball swing.
Baseball players always square up to home plate and most hit with a
closed stance, that is, with their front foot slightly closer to home
plate than the back foot. Racquetball players should likewise square up
to the side wall and hit with a closed stance. See the stroke tutorial for more
detail on stroke mechanics.
Every racquetball stroke starts with footwork. If your shots are weak or you can't seem to control where they go, it might be because your footwork is wrong. If your shoulder hurts, it could be the result of poor footwork.
If your back foot is closer to the side wall than your front foot, you are said to be "hitting with an open stance." The open stance could be just a few inches from closed ("slightly open") or all the way open so that your feet are parallel to the front wall. In this case you are said to be "wrong footed." For power and consistency, you should try to hit with a closed stance whenever possible. This means that, as you move around the court, you should try to end up in a closed stance when you hit the ball. Also, when you hit wrong-footed you are using only the muscles of the arm, not the big muscles of the body. If you hit the ball hard when wrong-footed you put serious pressure on your shoulder. If you are playing with shoulder pain, it could be because you are hitting with an open stance too often.
So, how do you move on the court so that you hit with a closed stance? There are essentially three methods of moving on the racquetball court, walking, running, and shuffling. Combining these movements is the key to winding up with a closed stance when it comes time to hit the ball. Everyone knows how to walk and run, but the shuffle or "step-together-step" might require some explanation.
Suppose you are in center court and your opponent hits a ceiling
ball. You have plenty of time, so there is no need to hurry. Turn to
face the side wall, take a step back with the back foot (step), then
bring the front foot back to meet the rear foot (together), then step
back again with the back foor (step), repeat as necessary. Don't cross
your feet. This shuffle keeps you squared up to the side wall and
virtually guarantees that you will be in position to hit with a closed
stance when the time comes. You can shuffle backwards, forwards, and
side to side. It is a great way to move on the court, while staying
under control. (Click here
for short video.)
Let's start with the footwork necessary to return a good drive
serve. As noted in the section on
serve return, the basic footwork is a pivot step followed by a
cross-over step. When returning serve, you start in the middle of the
court, but your opponent's goal is to get the drive serve to die in one
of the back corners. In order to cover the distance between the center
of the court and the corner, you first take a pivot step toward the
side wall. That is, you turn your foot so that the toes are pointing
toward the side wall and take a small step (six inches or so).
Then take a large cross-over step with your opposite foot. This motion
plus a lunge should allow you to reach virtually any drive serve to the
back corner. You could simply turn on your heel and then take the
cross-over step, but taking the little step doesn't cost any time and
adds six inches of reach (which could be the difference between getting
the ball and being aced). Turning your foot toward the side wall allows
your hips to open. If your toes were still pointed toward the front
wall, you couldn't take the cross-over step. (Click here for short video.)
Now let's assume that you are on defense in good center court
position, with eye on ball. Suppose the ball is hit cross-court or down
the line to your left (backhand). If the ball is well hit, you will
probably not be able to cut it off by moving directly toward the side
wall. Instead, take a diagonal
path to the ball. Take the same pivot step as in the return of serve,
but a little more diagonally toward the left back corner with your left
foot. The cross-over step (plus a lunge if necessary) should put you in
good position to hit a backhand with a closed stance. (Click here
for short video.)
If the pivot step plus cross-over doesn't get you to the ball, you
will need to take another step. If you don't have far to go, take a stutter step (a shuffle step) so
that you keep your front foot closer to the side wall. (Click here
for short video.)
If the ball is well hit all the way to the back corner on the right
side, take a
diagonal path on that side. Take a pivot step with your right foot
diagonally toward the right rear corner, then a cross-over step to
close your stance in preparation for a good forehand. If you need to go
deeper, keep running, ending with a shuffle step if necessary (assuming
you have time) to close your stance.
For some more examples of the cross-over step, click here.
For some more examples of the stutter step, click here.
There is a contradiction between two of the standard recommendations by racquetball instructors, namely (1) use the correct footwork to hit with a closed stance and (2) dominate center court. If you are going to dominate center court, you are going to have to compromise your footwork. If you are going to always use the correct footwork, you are sometimes going to have to give up center court.
Suppose you are in center court and the ball is hit hard right at you with enough speed so that it will come off the back wall. You have two choices. You could let it go and take it off the back wall or you could volley it. If you take it off the back wall, you will be able to use good footwork but you are abandoning center court. Because your opponent is now in center court, you now have to hit a very good offensive shot from deep court in order to have a reasonable chance of ending the rally.
On the other hand, you could volley the ball and hit a nice pass
away from where the ball came from, forcing your opponent to scramble
to get to the ball on the other side of the court. You have a much
better chance of ending the rally with the volley then waiting for the
setup off the back wall. If the ball is low, it might not come
off the back wall. So, by attacking now you could
hit a pinch and end the rally. Mixing ceiling balls, vollies
and half-vollies (hitting on the short-hop or mid-hop) will keep you in
center court and keep your opponent off balance behind you. To do this,
you will not always have time to set your feet, so you will frequently
be hitting wrong footed. (Click here
for short video.)
There are other occasions when you will have to hit off the wrong foot. For example, when you are jammed by the ball coming directly to you on the fly, bouncing close to your feet, or cracking out from the back or side wall. That's just the nature of the game. Make a reasonable effort to set your feet, but hit with an open stance when you need to.
I charted the videotape of the final match of the 2002 Greensboro Pro-Stop between Cliff Swain and Jason Mannino (numbers one and two in the world at the time), from ProRacquetball.net. On average, 65 percent of all hits were taken with a closed stance, 20 percent were taken with an open stance, and 15 percent were other (dive, easy ceiling ball, hit into back wall, hit behind the back or between the legs, etc.) If we ignore the return of serve, which is almost always hit with a closed stance, and we ignore the "other" category, then about three-fourths of the hits were from a closed stance and one-fourth from an open stance. That is, in a rally these top pros hit one of every four hits from an open stance. We all do it.
You should probably not try to hit the ball very hard when you are
wrong footed. Take care of your shoulder. You can still get off a good
shot if you just rotate your upper body and snap your wrist.
For some more examples of pros sacrificing form to maintain center
court position, click here.
Many players use a "step-out" step rather than a pivot plus
cross-over. For example, to get a ball hit to their right, many players
take one big step with their right foot and swing. Such players are not
using the big muscles of the body and they are not taking their normal
swing, so the resulting shot will be weaker and less accurate than it
would be with a simple cross-over step.
On the other hand, the step-out step takes a little less time than
the pivot plus cross-over step. If you are protecting your good center
court position, you might not have time to pivot and cross-over. (Click
here for short video. For
some more examples, click here.)
So, you might have to use the step-out step occasionally to preserve good center court position. However, don't get into the habit of hitting with the step-out step. You are hitting with a completely open stance and, because your arm does all the work when hitting wrong-footed, you are risking injury. If your shoulder hurts after playing, you might be using the step-out step too often. Do the footwork drills below to train your muscles and develop better habits..
Another common mistake involves balls that come off the back wall.
Let's assume your opponent hit a ceiling ball that hits too high on the
back wall and is going to come out for a setup. Face the correct side
wall depending on whether you want to hit with your forehand or
backhand. Run or shuffle (step-together-step), if you have time, back
to the back wall, or close to it if the ball is going to fly way off
it. Keep eye on ball. Feel for the back wall with your left hand if
your are on the backhand side or with your racquet if you are on the
forehand side. Shuffle out with the ball after it hits. Keep shuffling
along side of the ball, letting it drop into your hitting zone. When
the ball is at or below your knee, take the last step with your front
foot and swing. Your motion should be like a wave flowing into and then
away from the back wall. (Click here
for short video.)
Don't try to predict where the ball will go and simply wait for the ball to come to you. This is called "camping out" and can lead to nasty surprises when the ball doesn't do exactly what you thought it was going to do. Force yourself to go all the way back to the back wall and touch it with your hand or racquet every time the ball is going to come off the back wall. The only exception would be when the ball is going to rebound all the way to mid-court ( a terrible shot). Eventually you will develop the habit of going all the way back and be going forward when you hit the ball, like the pros in the previous video.
A very common mistake is to hesitate after you shoot, before moving
toward center court. Don't "admire your shot." See the section on court
If you are drive serving, you will wind up with your front foot on
the foot fault line, 15 feet from the front wall. This is way too far
forward. You are extremely vulnerable to an easy passing shot. You have
to try to get back to good center court position. Given the speed
of the ball, you will probably not be able to get all the way back to
the ideal spot two feet behind the dotted line. However, you should be
able to get close to the dotted line. To do this, you must push off
your front foot. Different players do different things. Some shuffle,
some run backwards. Do what you want, but try to get back to the dotted
line, keeping eye on ball. (Click here for a short video.)
The best drill for footwork is the star drill. I recommend a modified version that requires some visualization. Start in good center court position two feet behind the dotted line. No ball. Imagine returning a ceiling ball in the center of the court. Shuffle directly back to the back wall (keeping your eye on the imaginary ball), touch the wall, shuffle out with the imaginary ball and then execute a phantom stroke. Be sure to have a closed stance when you swing. Go back to center court. Now imagine a ceiling ball to the backhand corner. Shuffle to the backhand wall close to thecorner, touch the wall, shuffle out, execute a backhand stroke (with a closed stance). Go back to center court. Repeat on the forehand side.
Now imagine cutting off a DTL on the backhand side. Take a pivot
plus cross-over step diagonally toward the back corner. Execute a
backhand. Visualize hitting a nice pinch. Go back to center court.
Repeat on the forehand side. Back to center court. Now move forward
diagonally to the left to the short line, execute a backhand. Use a
stutter step if necessary to close your stance. Back to center court.
Repeat on the forehand side. Now imagine running directly toward the
front wall with the ball dying in the front court. Hold your racquet
out in front, low, with the strings facing up at a 35 degree angle.
Imagine hitting a dink shot to the front wall. Backpedal to center
Imagine the ball coming off the back wall and flying toward the front
left corner. Run up to the left corner and hit a phantom backhand low
into the front wall or corner. Backpedal to center court. Repeat on the
forehand side. Take care that you execute all shots with a closed
stance and that you immediately hustle back to center court.
Once you have hit all the points of the star, take a breather by returning imaginary shots hit close you you in center court. Take a pivot plus cross-over to the right, swing. Return to ready position. Take a pivot plus cross-over to the left, swing. Repeat until you catch your breath.
Another drill to reinforce the habit of hitting with a closed stance
is to toss and hit rather than drop and hit. Start at the dotted line
in the center of the court, facing the front wall. Bounce the ball
diagonally toward the left side wall so that you contact it about at
the short line, close to the side wall, after taking a pivot plus
cross-over step. Hit five good DTL shots this way. Repeat for pinches
and CC shots. Now move back to good center court position facing the
front wall and bounce the ball diagonally toward the left side wall so
that you contact it close to the side wall about at the dotted line
after taking a pivot plus cross-over step. Hit five DTL, pinch, and CC
shots. Repeat from the return of serve position (skip the pinches, low
percentage shots from deep court). Repeat the whole exercise on the
forehand side. Finally, bounce the ball into the back wall, as it
rebounds, shuffle alongside until the ball drops into your hitting
zone, and hit a DTL or CC. Repeat the whole exercise on the right side.
Movement is easier and
quicker if you are already in motion. Have happy feet. Some
professional players on defense just stand around watching their
opponents, completely relaxed, in center court. However, as their
opponent hits the ball, these players hop
into a crouch with their feet wider than shoulder width. The hop
(also known in tennis as a "split step") is a dynamic movement that
next movement easier, especially if your next movement is sideways.
(Click here for a short video.)
Also, it is a good habit to shuffle into the ball if you have time.
This gets your body moving forward and adds power to your swing. (Click
here for short video.)
Here is a video (3.4 MB) taken at the Finals of the 2002 Greensboro Open between Jason Mannino and Cliff Swain. In the first clip, note Jason's stutter step which allows him to close his stance. In the second clip, note his (small) pivot step plus cross-over step and diagonal path to the ball. In the final clip, both Cliff and Jason shuffle to the back court to return a ceiling ball. Cliff returns a ceiling ball, but Jason returns an offensive shot. To do that, Jason goes all the way to the wall and then takes a couple of shuffle steps toward the front wall. He does not "camp out." Also, Jason routinely takes a dynamic hop or split step as his opponent shoots. Finally, check out Jason's very effective junk lob serve.
Many books tell you to stay in a crouch as you move on the court. I
don't think this is a good idea. It is harder to run and harder to
breathe in a crouch. Stay upright, but in the athletic position with
your knees bent, as you run or shuffle. Crouch (or
hop into a crouch) when your opponent begins his swing. I have found
one example of a pro staying in the crouch while moving. Click here.
Check out the court positioning video .
Note the combination of shuffling and running. Also, note that no one
stays crouched the whole time. Also, check out the videostreams from
ProRacquetball.net. Watch the rallies and see how many players use a
cross-over step from center court, see when they run and when they
shuffle, how many shots are hit from a closed stance, how many from an
open stance, etc.