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Pattern Spotting

Humans are predictable creatures. In order to make sense of the world, we tend to compartimentalize thoughts and concepts for easy recall. As a matter of fact, tennis practices are often designed to make it easy for the student to understand the stroke and call upon it during the match. Unfortunately, what we do to improve a certain part of the game - for example, ground-strokes - is often detrimental to another part of the game - tactics. 

Take, for example, your basic side-to-side drill. Players practice this for hours in the hopes that it is the answer to all their problems. Similarly, coaches like to repeat the same drill because (a) the player is sweating (so the parents are happy that the money is not going to waste), (b) it's always easy to point to a component that the player can improve upon (e.g. footwork, balance, preparation, etc.), and (c) a fair number of points are won and lost based on the player's side-to-side movement. Nevertheless, if the player gets stuck in a certain routine (i.e., hitting and recovering to the other side), she will become susceptible to wrong-foot shots by the opponent. Furthermore, someone who constantly moves side-to-side parallel to the baseline is going to have trouble moving either diagonally, up-and-back or away for the ball. Therefore, it's important for a player to spot the opponent's patterns and adjust her game accordingly. Ultimately, most opponent prefer to go on autopilot; it's when they're forced to think and adjust that they have troubles. As a result, your job as a player is to read your opponent's likes and dislikes and beat him to the punch by making small adjustments in your strategy.

Take another example of a player who loves the inside-out forehand. The player can crush that forehand with his eyes closed. Guess what?! Hitting more shots towards his backhand is not going to throw him off-balance since that's how the player practices. In addition, squeezing shots closer and closer to the sideline is going to result in either more errors for you or a better angle from which the opponent can pounce. Now, throw a slice backhand down the line into the mix and you force the opponent to move in a completely new direction for the ball. Instead of pounding the forehand, now he has to move to the ball and get under it. The best he can hope for is a solid shot; not an outright winner (note, exceptions do happen). However, moving him off-center exposes his backhand (the stroke that he's been trying to protect) which may lead to more errors by the opponent in your favor. 

Another example is an aggressive player who loves to either serve and volley or come in of blazing groundstrokes. Great! Besides the obvious (hitting away from the opponent or dipping the ball when he comes in), how else would you play someone like that? Again, this type of player perceives certain "triggers" that tell her when an opportune time to approach arises (e.g., you're too far from the ball, she's hit a good serve, you're too far back, etc.). A strategy that may work against a player such as this would be to either "take the net away from her" (i.e. come in before she does) or actually seek to bring the player in but on your own terms. With respect to the first strategy, you just have to take it upon yourself to be the first player to the net - now the opponent becomes the person having to pass (and because she is not as comfortable at the baseline, she will have more trouble passing you than you will have playing at the net). Similarly, instead of waiting for the opponent to set up his favorite shot and come in, see if you can actually force him to come in off a less-than-optimal shot. Federal is great at hitting skidding, short court shots that force his opponents to come in (rather than hitting and retreating). Because Federer's shot stays so low, the opponent cannot actually hit a decent shot and is forced to approach with a shot that's not very aggressive. Again, Roger is successful in bringing the players in on his own terms and then either passing them or forcing them to hit an awkward volley. 

So, the lesson is simple: figure out your opponent's favorite patterns and then play in such a way that they never manage to hit such pattern. Force them to play a pattern that YOU favor. 


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