Imagine that you could actually predict where the opponent was going to hit every shot! You would be one step quicker, one second early in your preparation and one thought ahead on where to place your next shot. These would prove to be invaluable assets... no?
Well, this month's article will address the process of learning to anticipate an opponent's patterns and shot placements. In addition, I will give some advice on how to prevent yourself from becoming too predictable in your game.
Now, I write this article with some trepidation because I firmly believe that the best place for your eyes to be is... on the ball! In fact, my very first article for this column was entitled, SEE the Ball!!! (It has been exactly 20 years since I wrote my first column for The Tennis Server and it still is the most significant column I have written.) In my mind, it is more important to keep your eye on the ball than to anticipate the opponent's shots. Still, if you are an experienced player you can actually take your eye off the ball and quickly return to its path without much being lost in the process.
However, this takes some practice and should never be attempted when your game is going awry. Whenever you find yourself making errors or losing badly, the best course of action is to keep your eye on the ball and to keep your head quiet (frozen or motionless) while executing the stroke. Indeed when things go south, just see the ball more deliberately and attempt to hit each shot perfectly. Forget anything else.
What the pros do when competing is to watch the opponent after she/he hits a shot. Once the ball is struck, the player turns her/his attention to the opponent's court position and body language. Using non-conscious perception, the player "reads" what shot the opponent will strike in reply and where the ball is likely to be directed. This takes just a second or so. Then, the pro will return her/his focus on the ball.
The danger here is that you may not complete the shot with your head remaining motionless at the moment of impact. Still, if you want to anticipate you must be able to take your eye off the ball and to return to it quickly. It sounds simple, but in fact, it requires some practice and cannot always be done effectively in every match.
When I am playing reasonably well and want to begin to dominate my opponent, I always attempt to do some anticipating of my opponent's shots. But how will I know what to look for? This is the question.
First, I try to scout my opponents before I play them. I like to see what their body language is like when they hit certain shots. I look particularly at the shoulders and at the way in which the individual sets up the shot. What stance does she/he like to use for certain shots? How much shoulder turn does she/he give to each shot? Does she or he take the racquet back in a particular way when hitting cross court or down the line? Does the opponent's head betray where she/he is going with the shot?
The answers to these questions vary from player to player! That is why I keep a book on my regular opponents. I actually write down each player's "cues." When I play him again, I review what are his "give away" signals.
You would be amazed at how much information you can get from simply looking at an opponent playing a match before your face him/her. Once you have the information, capture it... write it down!!! It amazes me when I coach juniors that they play the same opponents frequently, but have no real idea of what he/she is likely to hit and where.
In addition to getting answers to these questions, one can scout patterns of play. Of course, we all want to know what kind of player we will be facing... big baseliner, serve and volleyer, pusher, all court player? These are fairly obvious. But, if you scout a little more carefully, you can actually see what patterns of play an opponent uses.
Once you know these, you are well ahead of the game with respect to anticipation, and you don't have to take your eye off the ball as frequently to benefit from this data.
You see, we are all creatures of habit. We, more often than not, make the same mistakes and hit the same types of winners match after match. Think about your own game. Are you really a different player each time you come on the court? Are you truly willing to adopt a different game plan for each opponent? Have you practiced and trained in such a manner that you are diversifying your weapons and strokes? My guess is that the answer to most, if not all, of these questions is no. The same probably holds true for your opponent.
I like to focus on what an opponent does at 30-40, 40-30 and 30 all and at deuce. These are the key points! These are the ones that an opponent needs to win. He or she may take chances that are out of the ordinary at 15-love, love-15 or 15 all. But rarely do opponents take out of the ordinary chances or risks at the key points. If they do, they are not using their heads.
By focusing on the key points, you can actually see what the opponent wants to do whenever he/she can. Which wing they prefer to hit, how hard they want to hit, what spin they like to use, and where they want to hit are usually more accurately discerned when focusing on play during these key points.
Next, I like to focus on short balls. What does the opponent do when she/he is given the opportunity to hit a clear winner? The answer to this question will usually tell you where the opponent prefers to hit all her/his balls and with what margin for error.
I have found that a player usually, when under pressure, hits to the same spot that she/he likes to place. I had several students doubt me on this. They started paying attention to what regularly faced opponents do in this put away situation. They are, now, true believers.
So, whenever I sense the opponent is in an emergency situation, I always move to this "preferred" placement spot. Now, I grant you that the heady opponent will catch onto your anticipation and will vary what she/he does to prevent you from having the anticipation edge. Still, they are then forced to hit in a manner and at a place that is not where they feel fully comfortable. Guess what? This takes something away from their game... both strategically and mentally.
In my mind, John McEnroe was/is one of the absolute best in anticipation. Little by little, he senses what you want and are going to do. Then, he takes it away from you. Many of his opponents have said that Mac beats you in little bits and pieces. I think this is true... in part, because he is one who anticipates well.
At the very beginning of the match, I do not taking my eye off the ball for even a fraction of second during play. I literally need to get "my eyes on." However, if I am holding my own or actually getting ahead in the game, I try the following:
I focus on the spin of the ball as it comes over the net toward me. I pay particular attention to the moment that it bounces. When I make contact with the ball, I try to keep my head absolutely motionless. In fact, I try not to move my head from this "contact point" position for a fraction of a second after I have hit the ball. Then, I immediately turn to look at my opponent's body language. If there are any cues (and often times there are... for example, an opponent's stance) I begin to move in the direction that I anticipate... although I do not want to over commit to this action in that I may be reading him incorrectly. I always make certain to pay particular attention to the ball at the moment that it hits my opponent's strings. This is the final anticipation cue... but one that often times can give me the edge.
As you can see, this process involves a very deliberate set of actions with respect to vision. First, focus on the ball. Second, focus on the moment of impact. Third, focus on the opponent's body cues. Finally, focus on the moment of impact with respect to the opponent's stroke.
This process requires deliberateness, diligence, patience and practice! You really need to play lots of practice sets utilizing this process before you can expect to employ this in competitive situations.
Now, let's address how you can prevent yourself from becoming a victim of an opponent's ability to anticipate. First and most important, you must add variety to your game. You need not only two game plans but also many game plans, if you truly want to avoid being readable. To do this means that you have to practice various strokes and various strategies... even if they are uncomfortable!
Second, you need to learn to feint and deceive. Doubles players do this all the time! The net player is likely to fake a poach, or a doubles team may use a formation that breaks the normal patterns.
In singles, the player can deceive by breaking her/his normal patterns... just don't do this on critical points. Better to have the opponent anticipate correctly than to try a shot that you feel uncomfortable hitting when the point is important. If you break the patterns on less than key points like 15-love, love 15 or 15 all, you will more likely make the shot (less pressure) and send deceptive signals to your opponent.
In any event, anticipation can be a great weapon in your arsenal. If you ever get the chance to watch John McEnroe play a Champions match on television or in person, you will see one of the very best anticipating players in the game. Despite his age, John is always looking for the competitive edge and takes every game seriously. Clay has never been Mac's best surface. Still, he wins big and often on this surface on this senior tour. In part, his anticipation gives him the little edge he needs to beat his opponent.
I am sure if you try to scout your opponents carefully, employ the proper vision process and vary your patterns of play on the less than key points, you will in no time become a
PS: I want to thank each of my readers who have read my column and written to me over these 20 years!!!