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?
Every player of this wonderful game of ours has some predictable "tells" to borrow a term from the game of poker. If you play an opponent frequently, you probably have a good idea of where she/he will want to hit her/his shots given a particular court position and given from which "wing" (backhand or forehand) she/he will strike the ball. If you are playing a new opponent, it may take you a bit of time to perceive the "tells" that he/she may be putting forth.
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!!!. 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.
What the pros do after hitting a shot when competing is to watch the opponent as quickly as is possible after finishing a stroke. 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. This also means that you need to spend deliberate time developing this "back and forth" change in focus during your practice sessions!
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? (I must interject that opponents who use lots of open stances on both wings can often times be more deceptive and unpredictable in terms of where and how they intend to hit their shot.) 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? Not every opponent betrays his/her "tells" in exactly the same manner. One needs to pay close attention to the opponent's unique "details" to learn to read these "tells."
The answers to the questions above 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 his "giveaway" signals or "tells" are.
If you are facing a new opponent, scouting is essential. You would be amazed at how much information you can get from simply carefully looking at an opponent playing a match before your face him/her. Once you have the information, capture it... write it down!!!
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. Some players favor the crosscourt shot when on the run. Others may prefer to try down-the-line. Some players almost always go for a winner on their third or fourth stroke in a rally while others are more patient during rallies. Some players will hit an approach shot on a short ball. Many others will simply try for the put away. Some opponents stay deep behind the baseline others like to hug the baseline. Some players like to vary their spins frequently in a rally. Others may simply go all out for power and topspin on every groundstroke.
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 to benefit from this data.
You see, we are all creatures of habit. We have a style of play that we bring to every match. Many players stick to the same "game plan" whether she/he is winning or losing. 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 capable of 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 should note that every player needs to be able to execute two different "game plans!"
I like to focus on what an opponent does at 30-40, 40-30 and 30 all and 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. More often than not, you see the "essential" and "real" player when playing out these key points.
By focusing on the key points, you can actually see what the opponent prefers to do whenever he/she can. Which wing do they prefer to hit? How much pace do they really like to put into their shots? 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. Most modern players prefer to try for the winner (even if the ball is not all that short). Fewer players will hit an approach shot and follow it to the net to hit a winning volley.
I have found that a player usually, when under pressure, hits to the same spot that she/he likes to place. Under pressure, most players go to their comfort zones. Granted, the pros will frequently get more aggressive (in a controlled manner) when the going gets tough. But, we mortals normally don't.
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, Roger Federer is one of the absolute best in terms of anticipation. Little by little, he senses what you want and are going to do. Then, he takes it away from you. I believe that one of the reasons that Roger's footwork is so impeccable is that he is almost always moving to the ball early. He anticipates his opponent's shots extremely well. It is rare when you see an opponent is able to hit "behind" Federer or "wrong foot" him in a rally.
Once the match is actually being played, I start by not taking my eye off the ball for even a fraction of second during play. 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) I begin to move slowly in the direction that I anticipate... 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. I am not really certain why paying close attention to this moment of impact helps me anticipate. I suspect that it is because my non-conscious mind reads the balls movement and direction a fraction of a second earlier.
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 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.
Even when I watch a match on TV, I turn the commentary down and simply look at one player throughout the point. As he or she sets up for the shot, I say aloud where I believe his/her shot will be headed... crosscourt, down the line, high and deep, etc. This year's outstanding Australian Open Men's Singles Final was no exception! Despite the drama in this history making match, I focused my attention on Federer's of Nadal's groundstrokes. I watched each player's body language as the ball approached him. By the third set, I was "guessing" correctly about 80% of the time with respect to ball direction, pace and spin. In truth, I can't consciously identify the specific "cues" that made my anticipation reach this level. However, I am fairly confident that it occurs in my non-conscious mind seamlessly once I give this part of my mind enough "observational" information.
Imagine how much more confident you would be in a match if 80% of the time you predicted your opponent's shots instead of simply reacting to them.
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. Doing 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 poaching, or a doubles team may use a formation that breaks the normal patterns.
In singles, the player can deceive by breaking from her/his normal patterns... just don't attempt to do this on critical points! Better to have the opponent anticipate correctly on a key point than to try a shot that you feel uncomfortable hitting when the point is important. If you vary the patterns on less critical points like 15-love, love 15 or 15 all, you will more likely make these "atypical" shots (due to less pressure) and increase the likelihood of establishing deceptive signals in your opponent's mind when the critical, key points do arise.
In any event, anticipation can be a great weapon in your arsenal. If you ever get the chance to watch John McEnroe play a seniors match on television or in person, you will see one of the very best anticipating players in the game. Clay has never been Mac's best surface. Still, he wins big and often on this surface on the senior tour. In part, his anticipation gives him the little edge he needs to beat his opponent. Mac always plays his own game, but he is very much aware of what his opponent likes, dislikes and what his opponent is most likely to do in a given match situation. I grant you that the senior matches are always "fun," but I assure you that Mac is always focused on winning!
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 important points, you will in no time become a tennis overdog.