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Observing an opponent:10 ways to improve a player’s game

by Kim Bastable, USPTA

<i>Teach students to study their opponents to see which stroke is stronger and how confident they look hitting it.
Teach students to study their opponents to see which stroke is stronger and how confident they look hitting it.

March 2010 -- How do you know when your student is becoming more than a beginner? The universal tip-off is when a player begins to think more about an opponent than his or her own game.

And, by analyzing an opponent, the player will learn tons of information that can be used against that opponent in competition.

Here are 10 tips to remind your players to put this good information to work.
  1. Analyze the warm-up.
    The warm-up session reveals much about players: how they hit, what grips they use, their footwork and their comfort level with different shots. During the warm-up time, a player should study the opponent and ask himself the following questions:

    Is their backhand or forehand the stronger stroke? Did they hit many backhands and, if so, how confident did they look with the strokes and how well did they hit them? It's common for most players to have a good forehand and more than 70 percent of all shots in a match are forehands or serves, so having a weak backhand is only a liability if it's noticed and exploited.

    Did they take the time to practice volleys? Many players lack confidence at the net, and it shows in warm-up. Some don't bother to warm up at the net at all because they aren't comfortable there. If there is no volley practice, take note and make sure to hit short balls early in the match to draw them to the net. If they do have good volley skills, don't give up the strategy yet. Make sure you tempt them to the net and then lob. Their overhead skills may be their weakness.

    Did their serve have any strange spin? Did it always land in a certain part of the box? Was it soft or hard? These answers will help you determine where to set up for the return of serve. Also, if they hit a very hard, flat serve, especially if it's done using an Eastern forehand grip rather than the more desirable continental grip, don't be surprised to see a very soft, weak second serve. Plan to try to take advantage of that second serve. Don't get caught standing too far back for a weak serve.
  2. Study where they stand to return your serve.
    Often, this will give away their preferred shot, which is usually the forehand. If they stand in a place that protects them from hitting a backhand return of serve, then they have also left open a large part of the service box by doing that. Aim for that area and make them regret their decision to protect their weakness.

  3. Avoid their power zone.
    Each grip has a power zone. A player with an Eastern forehand grip likes to contact the ball around their waist and slightly out in front. This will enable the best contact possible. A player who uses a semiwestern grip would prefer the ball bounce slightly higher, around the torso. By learning the various grips and identifying the player's preferred "power zone," you can distract them from their best game by playing away from that spot. Hit high looping balls to a player who prefers them near the waist. Hit low, short balls to a player who prefers them near their chest. Don't give them what they prefer and don't give them the same ball time after time. Make them adjust to new heights, spins and speeds as much as possible. Also, remember this tactic when your opponent approaches the net. Most players can volley a ball when it comes at shoulder height. Respond to their approach with a short, low ball to take advantage of an incorrect volley grip. Also, consider hitting an off-speed shot. It's more difficult to volley a floater or a ball hit with less pace.

  4. Check out their movement and footwork.
    Most players can hit a fairly strong forehand shot from the middle of the court. But once a player moves to the side or up to the net or back, to cover deep, high balls, their game is neutralized. Start by watching how they move in warm-up. Do they move their feet or do they reach? Do they move better to the forehand side or backhand side? As the match begins, take mental notes as to how they respond to certain shots.

    If they are slow or unable to move well, a good strategy is to hit directly to them a few times, so they don't have to move and therefore, become even more flat-footed. Then change direction and move them across the court. They, likely, won't move well. The option of moving them back and forth is also available, although that is common practice rhythm, and they may more easily adapt.

  5. Anticipate opportunities after analyzing weaknesses.
    After you learn to hit balls that neutralize your opponent, don't sit and wait for mistakes . anticipate opportunities instead! As the opponent is forced to move and reach for the ball, step forward, into the court. Anticipate where their ball might land and be ready to finish the point. They might make an error, but more often, they will be neutralized and will give you opportunities with balls that land short in the court. Be ready to finish!

  6. Keep mental statistics.
    After you attack the net about four or five times, ask yourself if all of their responses to your approach shots have been the same. Do they always hit it back crosscourt? Do they always lob? Often, there is one response that you'll see more than others. Use this information to your advantage and begin to anticipate that response. You'll be a split second more prepared for their answer to your approach.

  7. Place blame in the right place.
    After you attack the net and lose the point, ask yourself if your shot was a poor approach or if their shot was a good response. Often, players stop approaching the net because they consider the opponent's response better than it really was. A strong approach would be one hit down the line and with good velocity, forcing the opponent to move. Low and short approach shots often solicit lobs and are effective, too (assuming you have confidence in your overhead). Don't stop an attacking game unless they truly have earned your respect with good passing shots. If your approach is really the problem, keep attacking but do it with better and smarter shots.

  8. Have you seen everything they have?
    In some matches, all points look exactly the same. Both players use no creativity and thought; they just hit the ball back. Before losing a match, ask yourself if you have made them hit many types of balls. If they are good at many types of points and many types of shots, they are probably better than you but maybe you are losing because you are just playing their game. Hit a few different shots and find out if they are capable of coming to the net, hitting overheads, playing deep balls, reaching for short balls, and running down drop shots. Have you tried all of your options?

  9. Hide your weaknesses, at all costs.
    Everyone has a few weaknesses and some days, even strengths aren't very strong. If it's one of those days, consider changing from your typical style of play to one that uses your best asset that day: your mind. Outthink your opponent. Consider running around your backhand even if it means you are leaving most of the court open. Hit more aggressive shots instead of playing for consistency. Maybe you'll change your success rate. If your serve is struggling, avoid all big first serves. Just get a half-speed (hopefully deep) first serve in play. Second serves always mean "opportunity" to an opponent. Give them fewer "opportunities."

  10. Read your opponent like a book.
    Watch your opponent between points and read them on the breaks. Do they look tired? Stiff? Are they nursing an injury? If they want to take a full 90 seconds, try to rush them by getting ready quickly and looking a bit impatient. If they are rushing you, don't let them. Take your full rest. Take care of your own needs first, but always keep one eye on them.

There is much to a tennis match besides balls going back and forth across the net. It's a battle. Discerning your opponent's strengths, weaknesses and state of mind is a large part of the direct, hand-to-hand nature of a tennis match. When you take an opponent out of their comfort zone and distract them from what they do best, you have entered into the deeper aspects of tennis match play.

      Former NCAA All-American and Southeastern Conference champion at the University of Florida, Kim Bastable, USPTA, is currently boys and girls head tennis coach at Kansas City Christian School in Prairie Village, Kan. She is a P-1 pro and a past president of the USPTA Missouri Valley Division.
     
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