Anticipation

Things to consider when playing singles to better read and predict the intentions and patterns of your opponent and the consequences of your shots and decisions

  1. Look at the location and height of the service toss to get a read on the intended spin, bounce and location of the serve. A service toss up and behind the tossing shoulder indicates a higher bouncing kick serve either at the body or to the center T on the deuce side of the court and either at the body or out wide on the add side of the court. A toss veering more to the right for right-handed players indicates a lower bouncing slice serve generally angled out wide when serving from the deuce side of the court. Of course, elite players can vary location, spin, trajectory, bounce and pace with minimal variation in service toss location (making it more difficult to read). This then requires a more advanced and thorough observation (either live or by study of film) to determine player preferences, tendencies, and patterns.
  2. Note the footwork or lack of footwork to the ball. As an example, if a player is slow or late getting up to a short ball, the responding shot will invariably be short and/or up. A (right-handed) player who in running around her backhand to hit a forehand kicks back and loads her rear leg behind and to the left of the front leg thus closing her stance to the ball will almost always hit the responding shot cross court in an inside/out pattern.
  3. Note the swing path and swing mechanics and the ability of the player to adjust as necessary in response to different velocities, spins, trajectories, directional angles and bounce heights. A player with a straight take back is going to experience problems with higher bouncing balls up and out of the strike zone. A player with a loopy, big backswing unable to adjust to shorten the swing is likely to experience problems hitting the ball on the rise, maintaining a tighter position to the baseline, handling balls hit flat and with more pace and responding to patterns and point situations which require less time to respond.
  4. Check out the grips on both the forehand and backhand sides of your opponent. Choice of grips can betray specific vulnerabilities or tendencies. A player preparing to return serve with a continental or backhand grip is likely to block or chip the return when receiving serves hit to the forehand. A player who hits a one-handed backhand with a continental or mild eastern grip is going to face problems coming over the ball (hitting topspin) particularly when responding to balls hit up and out of the strike zone. A player who hits a two-handed backhand using a continental or mild eastern grip with the non dominant hand will similarly have difficulty hitting heavy topspin. A player with a more extreme western forehand grip is likely to experience difficulties with low shots. Of course, this is not to say that a player cannot modify his/her grip depending on the requirements of the shot. Better players can and often subtly change their grip to close or open the racquet face to generate more or less spin and to adjust to balls hit outside their strike zone. What is perceived initially to be a potential weakness can prove not to be a weakness with closer observation.
  5. Check out the angle of the racquet face with the take back or backswing. You can anticipate slice (or a flatter ball) when your opponent sets with an open face on the forehand side. A shift from two hands to one hand combined with an open face take back indicates slice off the backhand side for players who regularly hit their backhand with two hands. Intent is easier to disguise with the backhand for players who regularly hit with one hand but there are still cues in the take back that help to identify the type and degree of spin. To recognize slice, look for the extent of wrist extension and forearm pronation and the degree to which the racquet face opens and the racquet edge turns in toward the shoulder.
  6. This is more subtle, but I like to look at the hand skills (the ability to maneuver the racquet face angle and swing velocity and path as necessary to get the ball back in play, hit targets, etc.) to assess how my opponent is likely to respond to different shots and point situations. A skilled player with soft hands can use wrist flexion and extension and ulnar and radial deviation of the wrist to adjust the racquet face angle and to generate racquet head speed. A player with soft hands is characterized by finesse, creativity and elastic, fluid, and effortless strokes. On the other end of the spectrum is a player who is more rigid, less athletic, and mechanical in stroke execution. A player with soft hands is adaptive (can adjust to get a racquet on the ball in response to balls hit outside the strike zone) and can absorb and generate pace, vary the type and degree of spin, height, trajectory, and directional angles and by nature, is more unpredictable. A player who is more rigid is vulnerable to changes in tempo, rhythm, pace, and spin.
  7. Key on positioning (recovering and repositioning after each shot) to better anticipate responses from your opponent and to provide yourself with the best opportunity to counter and respond to every shot hit by your opponent. When operating from the backcourt, look to bisect the angle of your opponent’s best shot options to your right and left. This translates to a recovery position just right of the center mark after hitting a ball crosscourt (from your right to the right side of your opponent). In terms of your depth or your positioning in relation to the baseline, look to recover a few feet behind the baseline and then adjust your depth either in or back based on the severity (imposed pressure) of your previous shot. You can move in or play tighter to the baseline in a more offensive position after pressuring your opponent into a defensive response and either hold your position or move back after hitting a weaker shot. When playing in the forecourt, bisect the possible angles of return which essentially requires you to follow the line of the ball. Protect against the down-the-line pass. Force your opponent to attempt a cross-court angle pass which is a much tighter window. Get as tight as possible to the net to cut off angles and to put yourself in position to finish the point with a volley winner. You can get tighter to the net if your previous shot is hit low and stays down (knowing it will be difficult for your opponent to lift the ball over your head). You should fade back from the net if your previous shot sits up and fall back more considerably, stay low and possibly guess to move to your left or right if you leave your opponent with a sitter (such as a short lob).
  8. One way to better anticipate what shot to expect in a point exchange is to understand the concept of mirroring. With variation based on the ability level to execute, there is a tendency for players to mirror the shots they receive. For example, if you hit a high, heavy, and loopy shot, you can often expect the same shot in reply. Similarly, if you hit a shot hard and flat, you are likely to receive a hard and flat shot in reply. If you take pace off the ball, it is hard for players at most levels to generate pace, so you can expect the corresponding shot to be hit at a slower pace by your opponent. When you hit a shot crosscourt, the expected response is for your opponent to maintain direction and hit the ball back in a crosscourt direction (particularly when hitting from a neutral or defensive position). The same mirroring response applies to spin, trajectory, net clearance, etc.
  9. For better anticipation and court awareness, it is important to know basic shot patterns and styles of play. Most points begin with a cross court pattern (maintaining the direction of the serve) with depth being the primary objective for the return and subsequent shots. The initial pattern then changes when one player (Player A) hits a short or weak shot which provides the opponent (Player B) with the opportunity to attack by redirection to the open court, hitting an angle (preferably targeting the spot on the court where the service line intersects with singles sideline), hitting behind Player A as he or she is recovering to the opposite direction, or taking the ball out of the air with a volley or swinging volley. There are a number of first-strike patterns beginning with the serve and return. A classic first-strike pattern is an angled serve hit out wide followed by a shot hit down-the-line or inside-out to the open court. There are serve and stay back, return and stay back, serve and come in (serve and volley) and return and come in patterns. There are four basic styles of play or playing personalities – counterpunchers, all-court players, aggressive baseliners, and serve-and-volleyers. Of course, the best players do not always stay to script and vary their style as necessary for the best results.
  10. After factoring all the cues and references noted above, it is still necessary to dig a little deeper to get a better and more complete picture of your opponent. By observation prior to the start of your match or if not possible during the warm-up and the course of play, assess the tendencies, patterns, strengths, and weaknesses specific to your opponent. Assess the shot tolerance of your opponent. How disciplined is your opponent to stay in a rally as long as necessary to win a point? Is your opponent more successful with rallies of 0 – 4 shots, 5 – 8 shots or 9+ shots? What triggers your opponent to change direction, tempo, pace, spin, trajectory, etc.? What triggers a more offensive response and when attacking, does your opponent tend to repeat specific patterns and/or aim targets? Does your opponent prefer to play at a fast or slow tempo? What are the target tendencies with the serve and return? How is the composure and focus of your opponent when ahead and when behind? The more you can discern about your opponent the better able you will be to anticipate shot locations and patterns of your opponent and the consequences of your shots, shot locations and pattern choices.

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