Those of you who read my column on a regular basis already know about one of my beliefs
I believe that for the most part there are two broad categories of players: the "hitter" and the "thinker."
The "hitter" is the player who usually has good strokes and at least one weapon. She/he approaches the game in a very one-dimensional manner. The "hitter" plays her/his game and only this game. If she/he is on top of her/his game in a given match, the chances are good that she/he will win. If the "hitter" is off or having a bad day, there is no hope of victory. Pros that fall into this category include: Goran Ivanisevic, Marat Safin, Gustavo Kuerten, Mary Pierce, Conchita Martinez and Amanda Coetzer. On any given day, on any given surface, against any given opponent; these players employ a rather narrow game plan. They usually win big or lose big.
If you travel to almost any of the major tennis academies in this country, you will no doubt see coaches who almost berate their charges with "just hit the ball!" Their goal is to teach these aspiring players to hit out on almost every shot. When Andre Agassi was a child, his fathers advice was very similar. The theory is that if you hit out on every shot, sooner or later, you will find more landing in than out. These coaches and academies have spawned generations of "hitters" beginning with Jimmy Arias.
The "thinker" is a more cerebral player. He/she is flexible and willing to adapt. Usually, these players are labeled as being "fiercely competitive." They will do whatever it takes to win. They never really give up on a match because they realize that there is always a way to win. Quite often, these "thinkers" will come back and win a match after a disasterous start. They may or may not have one or two big weapons
but they always have a way to change their game when they are behind. Michael Chang, Karol Kucera, Martina Hingis and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario are some pros who are true "thinkers." In any given match, you may see several different game plans executed by each of these players.
Now, there are some players who seemingly were always both "hitters" and "thinkers." These players are rare, indeed. However, they clearly rise to the top. Some professional examples are Pete Sampras, Billy Jean King, and of course, Rod Laver.
Some of the great pros became "thinkers" somewhat after the fact. Jimmy Connors could always crush the ball. But, it wasnt until he was coached by Pancho Seguro that he began to reach his full potential. Andre Agassi was dominating pro players with his heavy groundstrokes at age 16. However, he never really reached the top until he met his present coach, Brad Gilbert. Both of these coaches were known as great "thinkers" when they played the game.
Most of us like to believe that our strokes and skills are such that we need only be a "hitter." This is especially true among juniors and college players. Yet, the truth is that most of us just arent that talented. Nor do we have the time (4 to 6 hours per day) to dedicate to keeping those skills well honed!
Well, this months column will hopefully help you to become more of a "thinker" on the court. I used to think that I was a fairly good "hitter" and could out perform most of my opponents. This belief put me on the inevitable "hitters" rollercoaster. I won big and I lost big. At best, this was a 50/50 proposition. Eventually, my wiser self prevailed. I tried to be more cunning and to vary my play. The results were profound. I started winning 70% to 80% of the time
against the same opponents. My approach to the game was changed forever.
To become a winning "thinker," several principles must be recognized and put in place. First, there are no style points in tennis! Either you win the point or you lose it. In the final analysis, it doesnt really matter how. Bigger is not necessarily better in tennis. Sometimes, less is more in tennis. For "hitters" this can be very difficult to accept. "Thinkers" love to play these stubborn "hitters!"
Second, you must try to develop an all-court/all stroke game. This is needed if you are to have more than one trick in your bag of tricks. You need flat serves, kick serves, big groundstrokes, realiable volleys, overheads, slice shots, drop shots, topspin shots, lobs, etc. You need to be able to crush the ball and to massage the ball equally well. If the shot exists in tennis, you want to learn it. I must say that this realization has made the practicing more pleasurable for me
now, there is always something new to learn and acquire.
Third, you must become opponent-directed in your thinking. Rather than worrying about your strokes, your weaknesses, your weapons
you need to focus on the opponents likes and dislikes. Very simply, the "thinker" knows that most points in tennis are lost through errors than won through winners. The "thinkers" ultimate goal is to help the opponent lose! Thus, to play the "thinkers" game, you must become a good observer! Observation is not egocentric. When the "hitter" finds himself/herself down in a match, he/she looks within for the answer. The "thinker," however, looks at the opponent
trying to observe what are the opponents weaknesses. Once the crack in the armor is found, the "thinker" exploits the flaw relentlessly. Sure, the weakness may be only temporary. But, the "thinker" is always alert for new weaknesses that may arise. This is why the "thinker" is never out of a match
regardless of the score. Essentially, the "thinker" is like the counterpuncher in boxing.
So, how does one become a better observer? Well, there are at least several ways. First, try to observe your opponent when she/he is playing someone else. This is especially important if you play this person regularly. Having a somewhat detached, objective point of view will allow you to observe that which you cant see during competition. I like to record my insights in writing
actually creating a player profile for future reference.
Second, you should observe the opponent during the warmup. This is useful, but it can be misleading. Frequently, players will hide their weaknesses during the warmup. In addition, people hit differently under stress. Warmups dont push or stretch the player. However, warmups do provide some information
and some information is better than none. Just dont put all your hopes on your warmup insights.
Recently, I read a tennis text that suggested a player should win the warmup. No one wins a warmup! Yet, you can lose the value of the warmup if you only focus on your side of the net. Lets be honest. How much warming up does a 5 minute warmup really provide? Better to spend the time assessing your opponent.
Third, you need to observe your opponent during the match itself. Now, I dont advocate thinking during the actual playing of a point. Visualizing shots during play can be very helpful, but thinking during play is almost always counterproductive! How many times have you lost a point because you "changed your mind" about something during the stroke. The mind is a terrible thing to waste but not during points. Rather, you need to think between points and between games. However, you can observe during a point and analyze the data later without hindering your stroke production.
This leads us to the key question
what specifically should I be observing? Well, here is my checklist. It is not all inclusive, but these are some of the most useful indicators:
- Is my opponent right or left handed? You would be amazed at how many people dont realize that their opponents are left handed until the match is over. Generally, you need to be a bit cautious when playing a left handed opponent. The spin that lefties impart is different from the spin imparted by righties. Usually, it takes a little time to become acclimated to playing a leftie.
Thus, it is best to play conservative, percentage tennis for at least the first few games. By then, you hopefully will have adjusted to the leftie spin. At this point, you can become a bit more aggressive with your shots, if the opportunities present themselves.
- What kind of forehand grip does my opponent use? Every forehand grip has advantages and disadvantages. If your opponent uses a Continental grip, she/he will probably have a difficult time returning high bouncing, topspin shots. Eastern forehand players usually have a difficult time controlling balls that force them to stretch to hit a forehand. Semi-Western grips are tough to attack, but usually balls hit without pace are problematic for the player who uses this forehand grip. Finally, Western grips are very vulnerable to low bouncing, sliced shots
particularly if these shots have pace.
- How does my opponent hit her/his backhand? Twohanders usually return serve well and can handle most shots hit with pace. However, low bouncing, slice shots can over time in a match take their toll on the twohander. In addition, twohanders have less reach than onehanded players. Every time you force a twohanded player to hit a onehanded backhand, you increase your chances of winning the point. So, you will probably want to stretch the twohanded player out on this wing whenever possible.
Onehanded players can hit with topspin, slice or hit the ball flatly. The slice player hates the high bouncing, topspin ball. The flat player usually wants pace and hates the soft ball. Topspin onehanders are rare, but they will usually have a problem with both very high bouncing moonballs and with low bouncing, slice shots that have pace.
- How well does my opponent move? Players that are fast of foot usually want to run. You cant always hit at them, but once they are in motion, dont be afraid to hit right at them. They frequently will overhit their reply. If your opponent is out of shape, run him/her until the cows come home! You may lose the first set, but sooner or later, she/he will fatigue. That is when her/his errors will become numerous!
- Which is my opponents better wing? Usually, every player has one side that is better than the other. Obviously it is best to try to hit fewer balls to the stronger wing. Frequently, players are more consistent on what is their weaker side. Yet, they usually cant hit winners from this weaker wing. So, if you are tired and want to catch your wind, or if want to rally and hopefully fatigue your opponent, hit to the weaker wing. It has been my experience that hitting consistently to the opponents weaker side will force him/her to become impatient. This impatience may lead to the opponent attempting an ill conceived winner. Finally, if one side is really weak, almost any ball you hit with lots of pace or hit with heavy slice will elicit an error from your opponent.
- Every time an opponent makes an error, make a note of it. When your opponent makes an error, remember this essential data
forehand or backhand error?
where on the court did the error occur?
what caused the error? Humans are creatures of habit and make the same errors over and over
this axiom is especially true in tennis. If the same circumstances present themselves, the opponent will make the same error as before. The key is to be aware of the circumstances.
- Is my opponent changing his/her game plan? Why? If an opponent is doing something different, it is usually for a reason. The question you must ask yourself is: Why is she/he changing things? Sometimes, it is a new strategy. Sometimes, the opponent is fatigued. Sometimes, the opponent is mentally weakened. Sometimes, the opponent is injured. Sometimes, the opponent has developed a second wind. These are just some of the possible answers. Once you know the real answer, you can fashion the appropriate response, if one is necessary.
- What is the overall pace of the match and who does it favor? Here, we are talking about the time taken in between points and in between games. The rule is simple: Keep the pace if you are winning. Slow down the pace if you are losing. If you sense that your opponent is down or she/he is acting dejected, try to quicken the overall pace of the match.
- When does my opponent hit winners? Everyone makes some winners in a match. If your opponent consistently hits a winning shot, make note of it. When, where and how does this winner occur? What can you do to prevent it from being hit over and over again. The quick answer may be that you need to hit away from that wing or from that section of the court. This may not be easy to achieve. If not, try to vary the pace of your shot, the spin you impart and/or the balls bounce height. Changing one or all of these may neutralize your opponents winning shot without forcing you to hit away from a wing or section of the court.
These are just some of the most important observations to make when playing an opponent. Winning is the name of the game. Most of us are not blessed with the impeccable stokes of a Pete Sampras or Martina Hingis. Thus, we must bring something else to the table.
Taking the time to observe and analyze an opponent can pay big dividends with respect to your win/loss record. By becoming a "thinker" on the court, I am certain that in no time you will become a tennis overdog!