10 January

Up the ante and anticipate

Anticipation is crucial in tennis. It enables you to respond quickly, to get into the right position, to take away time from your opponent and to control the point. But it's a skill that has to be learned

Studies show that professional players who are dominating a rally can very accurately predict where the ball is going to come back. For amateur players, it is not that simple. Too often, the return takes people by surprise. After a match, they may not even realise what went wrong, that they were playing a leftie or that by becoming more aware of the right things, they could have improved their reaction time and their own choice of shot.

Here is a guide to how to predict the future and what to do when it arrives.


    Think 'BALL - PLAYER'

    "The main reason we lose points and get beaten is we fail to anticipate what’s coming next," says American coach and author Styrling Stroller. "Players often become captivated by what kind of shot they hit and where it’s going to land (in or out), instead of focusing on what their shot is doing to their opponent."

    The trouble with this is, that shot is already in the past. To be ready for the future, once you have hit the ball, you need to shift your attention from the ball to your opponent. Train yourself to do this by saying 'Ball' when it comes towards you and 'Player' once you have hit. Start by saying it out loud, then whisper it and finally hear it in your head.  

    Develop a sixth sense

    "There are no short cuts to predicting where the ball will go," says Pat Cash. "It requires a lot of training and mental preparation to master. But once you start to internalise the lessons it’ll become natural." Pick one of the following to focus on in each practice session, then repeat, repeat, repeat

    • Your opponent's body language
    • Patterns in your opponent's body movement
    • What spin the ball has (top spin, slice, flat)
    • The ball's trajectory (high, low etc)
    • The speed of the ball coming at you
    • How high the ball is moving through the air
    • Which way the wind is blowing
    • The distance the ball has to travel
    • Where the ball is going to bounce
    • How the ball is going to bounce 
    • Your court position in relation to the ball and opponent.

     "Once internalised, your brain will do this automatically. You’ll quickly see improvements throughout your tennis game. Your reaction time will improve, you’ll get to more balls, hit the ball cleaner, and sometimes feel like you have a sixth sense on the court."

    Hips and shoulders

    Watch the angle of your opponent's the hips and shoulders. 

    "At the recreational level, body positioning is everything," says Play Your Court. If your opponent has positioned themselves squarely side on, with hips and shoulders at right angles to the court, it's going to be really awkward for them to hit cross court. If, on the other hand, their hips, feet and shoulders are angled cross court, that is where the shot is going to go. "It really is this simple."

    Win the spin

    To anticipate the type of shot you are going to get, watch the position of your opponent's racket. "If your opponent's racket started above the ball, chances are that their shot is full of slice, and if you see the racket dropping very low before hitting the ball, you know they are trying to impart some heavy topspin," says The Guardian. "If it is lined up around the same level, of course, then they are going to be driving through without much topspin or backspin."


    Stand your ground

    If you see a slice coming, stand your ground. "A slice will stay low and you must be ready to move right towards where the ball will bounce," says New York Tennis Magazine.  "Stand in a very low ready position (bend your knees) and expect the ball to be below knee level at the point of contact. Don't be surprised by the ball skidding and not coming up. Hit the shot with your normal smooth swing and speed."

    Come to the net

    If you hit a great shot you may see your opponent struggling to return it or trying to hit it at full stretch. "That tells me a short weak ball is coming back" says Play Your Court. "That's a cue to look for you to come in, hit an approach shot or maybe take a ball out of the air and end the point." 

    Watch their second serve

    Make a note early of where your opponent hits his or her second serve says the USTA. it's usually a 'safe serve' and although your educated guess about where this is going will not always be right, anticipating and getting ready to attack will put you on the front foot.

    Defeating runner-pushers

    If you are anticipating well but getting worn down by a player who gets every ball back, there are a couple more tips from the USTA. It says 'runner-pushers' tend to be athletic types who don't have great power but run like mad and try to cover the open court too early. Look out for this and hit behind them or to side the opposite side they are running to. They also tend to dislike coming to the net. So bring them in with a short ball, then follow the ball in yourself and finish the point.

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