In a previous post I discussed the problem of maintaining distance. I indicated that I was not a fan of maintaining distance for the sake of maintaining distance. However, as I pointed out in the following discussion of maintaining hitting distance for the riposte against the attack, there are situations where a form of maintaining distance is important. Another one of these is when we want to close distance.
If you are at long (advance lunge) distance or even lunge distance against an opponent who retreats when you advance, you have to maintain distance in order to be in a position to be able to close it. So the first step in your effort to hit becomes maintaining the distance until conditions are favorable for closing to attack. This may mean until:
... you are mentally or physically prepared to execute your closing technique,
... you are at the zone of the strip favorable both in terms of available strip length and psychological factors for an attack,
... the opponent is working on your preparatory tempo (as opposed to your attacking tempo), or
... the opponent has lost focus or tactical awareness of your plan.
When one of these conditions (and there are almost certainly other equivalent opportunities), the situation has become favorable to close the distance with your attack. There are at least five ways to close distance to one at which you can hit:
(1) tempo change - accelerating to your fastest attack footwork, allowing you to close to a distance that allows your lunge to land the hit where the opponent will be as he or she reacts to the change. This is not defined by the distance between the two fencers when you lunge - that is at best a guide and a proxy. It is defined by where the opponent's target area will be when you finish your lunge, and may actually be inside your lunge distance.
(2) getting inside the opponent's decision loop - this is related to tempo change. If you can accelerate faster than the opponent can recognize the situation, determine a course of action, and move the body you will be able to close to hitting distance and score. Every time you change tempo, blade or foot, change your guard, feint, etc., you force a mental recomputation of what to do on the opponent. Multiple changes allow you to get inside the opponent's combined reaction and movement times and close the distance.
(3) distance stealing footwork - a very old, but still effective way to close the distance. Variations in the size of step combined with acceleration, or the bringing of the rear foot forward all the way to the heel of the front foot, allow you to collapse the distance. Yes, longer steps are slower steps, hence the need for a faster step. And yes, closing the feet up reduces stability and exposes you to some risk of counterattack.
(4) footwork traps - pushing an opponent, followed by pulling, and the lunge as the opponent starts to step forward to catch him or her in med-step is an old standby. It is well enough known that you have to disguise it with multiple direction changes. But there are a variety of other ways where movement changes or deliberate breaks in footwork can create opportunities to cause the opponent to change their direction of movement.
(5) invitation - hope springs eternal, but is only an even playing field in epee. Fencers have built successful records by the simple tactic of coming forward with footwork and a blade invitation that the opponent cannot resist in sabre or foil. The counterattack automatically fails against the attacker who finishes the attack with the advance-lunge right of way. By offering the irresistible, the attacker fixes the opponent and creates closure.
Doing any of these well requires practice, more practice, and continual refreshing of the skill set. But then that is what fencing is about. Hard work on fundamental techniques and tactics increases the probability of success.