By Edgar Giffenig TennisGate

Most people think of anticipation as knowing in advance where the opponent will hit the shot.  However, that is a very simplistic and incomplete definition.  Sometimes a player may be lucky enough to pick up cues that will give the opponent’s shot away, but most of the time a player will only be able to narrow down the possibilities or be able to discard some option. Therefore, a better definition for anticipation is: to have information about the possible trajectory of the ball before the opponent actually hits the ball. 

There are three ways in which a player can anticipate a shot:  cues from the opponent’s swing pattern, cues from specific game situations and the opponent’s tendencies.

Cues from the Opponent’s Swing Pattern

Countless studies have shown that there is a marked difference in the cues that advanced players and beginers heed to while playing.  Using vision-tracking devices, it has been proven that beginners focus mainly on the ball or on the opponent’s racquet at contact, while advanced playes focus on other parts of the body, extracting useful information. 

Some of the main cues in the opponent’s swing pattern that will ultimately determine the characteristics of the incoming ball are: his stance (open, square or closed), the racquet head (open or closed),  the timing of the contact point (late, on time or early), the swing pattern (low to high, high to low, short, long, fast, slow, etc.)

Skilled players interpret all of these elements to determine effectively the  possible traits of the opponent’s shot.  A player with a closed stance, an opened racquet head and a short high to low swing will probably not be able to hit an aggressive crosscourt passing shot.  

Cues from Specific Game Situations

Each situation will facilitate certain shots while hindering others. There are only a few viable shot choices for every situation on the court.  Of course, this is assuming that you are playing to win as opposed to playing for the glory of making an impossible shot regardless of the outcome. 

For example: A high, short ball will allow you to hit aggressively from the middle of the court to try to finish the point, while a very low, short ball will force you to hit a more conservative approach shot.  The same holds true for every possible on court scenario. Therefore, an experienced player will recognize different situations and will be able to anticipate possible outcomes.

Opponent’s Tendencies

Every player has favorite shots, and it is your job as a player to identify your opponent’s favorite shots during the match and cover them accordingly.  For example, a player may have to shift his starting position on the return against a player who loves to serve out wide, or he may have to remind himself to be ready to cover the great crosscourt passing shot from his opponent.  

Every player shows tendencies, and better players use this knowledge to their advantage. Great players use all these elements to help them anticipate the opponent’s shots.  It is an unconscious process based on thousands of hours on the court.  Like great detectives, they are able to look at the picture of every on court situation and extract the relevant clues that will help them anticipate their opponent’s shot.

Learning to anticipate takes a long time, and it is basically a by-product of experience.  However, good coaching can accelerate the process. 

Here are some things the coach can do:

Point out the Cues that the Players Should Look for when Playing

As a coach,  it is sometimes hard to understand how our players can fail to recognize an obvious shot from the opponent.  However, when this happens it is important to point out to your players the cues that helped you to predict the opponent’s shot, and to remember that the only reason you were able to recognize these “obvious” cues, is because you have spent much more time on the court and have been exposed to the same situations over and over.  

Describe Specific Situational Cues as Part of your Laws of the Battle

There are certain situations during a match that frequently lead to similar responses by the opponent, because these responses are either the best possible response, the easiest response or the only possible response left to the player.   These situations have to be integrated into the laws of the battle  and practiced accordingly.  Here are a few examples from the laws of the battle  library in which the law is used to alert the player about probable shots from the opponent.

  1. After your first serve, look to move into the court to attack a short return.
  2. Vary your position to adjust to the server. Cover his favorite shot.
  3. Always try to step into the court and catch the ball early when you have the opponent in trouble. 
  4. When you attack the net with an inside out forehand cover the down the line passing shot.
  5. After a passing shot, move diagonally into the court looking to catch the volley early.

In all these rules, a player is instructed to look out for a particular shot. In other words to “anticipate”  the most likely response from the opponent.

Practice different situations often

Situation and guided tactical drills are exercises designed to extensively expose  players to all the different situations they will encounter during a match until they are able to recognize each situation and automatically execute the shot that will give them the best chance of winning the point. For example: Set up situations in which the player has to defend from uncomfortable situation, situations where the player has to take advantage of short balls to attack or situations whe the opponent attacks the net. By playiong these situations over and over players will start to understand what the most likely shot sequence will be. In other words, they will start anticipation possible shot scenarios. Practicing these types of drills often will not only improve the players’ shot selection but will also have a very positive effect on the players’ anticipation ability.  The constant repetition of the same situation will teach players which shot combinations they are most likely to encounter in different stages of a point. 

Encourage your Players to Play Matches as Often as Possible

Nothing is better than match play to improve anticipation skills.  A match is nothing more that a series of situations that appear over and over.  In its basic form each point is a combination of serving, returning, rallying, atttacking or defending.  The more the players play, the quicker they will learn about likely answers to each of their shots.

Taking these steps will help you improve your players’ anticipation abilities, but it is a long process and there are few short-cuts.

From Edgar Giffenig

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