Patterns of Play – Observation and Anticipation
Once in a press interview many years ago, Pete Sampras was asked how it felt when he played, as the questioner phrased it, “perfect tennis.” And though Pete was rarely forthcoming in interviews, he warmed to this question with a thoughtful reply, “Yes, about once a month it does feel that way, when my shots and decisions are perfect.”
And that, in just a few short words, summarizes the nuts and bolts of the game – hitting the ball and deciding what to do with your next shot.
The hitting is what we all focus on – bending the knees, wrapping the follow-through over the shoulder or behind the head in the Nadal-like reverse forehand, knifing the under spin backhand, or floating a delicate chip. But again, all those shots occur on your side of the net at that magical if not confounding moment of contact. But the game is every bit as critical on the other side of the net and depends on the opponent’s court position, balance, tendencies, and more. Patterns of play describes how you use the court, when to play the ball deep, when to chip crosscourt, when you can reasonably anticipate your opponent’s shot, and precisely how keen you are about this critical process.
In our articles we use highlights of the professional game to augment our point of view and illustrate concepts. But, even though you and I cannot reasonably achieve the standard of play set by Roger Federer, or John McEnroe, the principles will always be the same. The dimensions of the court are always the same and whether they are playing Nadal or Lendl, or you are playing your neighbor next door, there will be many instances when you must decide where and how hard to hit the ball.
Degree of Difficulty
Before exploring exactly how to understand and execute patterns of play, allow me a digression to diving competition and the concept, “degree of difficulty.” Dives are graded on their “degree of difficulty” such that if two competitors both pull off perfect dives, the diver attempting a more difficult dive will be awarded more points. In tennis, when mastering decisions, whenever possible one should choose shots with lesser degree of difficulty and create patterns where the opponent chooses shots with greater degree of difficulty. In its simplest form this principle occurs when two players exchange crosscourt drives from the backcourt. The crosscourt passes over the lowest part of the net and plays to the longest line of the court (baseline to baseline the singles court measures 78 feet, corner to corner the singles court measures 82.5 feet). As this pattern continues, neither player appears to recover fully, more or less daring the opponent to change the direction and play up the line, but with the higher net, the shorter court and the chance now to play the ball wide, this choice has significantly greater degree of difficulty. So as we explore the following patterns, always in the back of your mind hold the concept of degree of difficulty.
The first issue always concerns how well you
watch the ball.
Watch the Ball
The first issue always concerns how well you and I watch the ball. However, mostly we practice this skill on our side of the net, watching the ball closely as it comes up off the ground and into our racquets. But as regards decisions on the subsequent shot, of equal if not greater importance will be how well we watch the ball on the other side of the net.
As you experiment with this, consider that when watching the ball on the other side of the net we should reasonably if not easily note our opponent’s court position. Did they move deep behind the baseline, were they stretched wide past the alley? Further, did they play the ball off balance on their back foot, did they race to the shot and continue moving one step farther past the ball before recovering, or did they quickly recover during the shot? In each and every case the decision and subsequent shot will be influenced by exactly how much we see on their side of the net. Examine your own skill on this task, and then resolve to become more alert about nuances in your opponents positioning, footwork, and form.
At the professional level note how often Roddick (and countless others) run around their backhands to drive an inside out crosscourt forehand, to which the opponent runs around his backhand and returns the ball, inside out along the same crosscourt path. Sooner or later one or the other will decide to change the line of play with a down the line drive, approach, or perhaps a chip. You can practice and hopefully master this decision tree on your own with a partner in the following drill.
Click photo: Federer is the master at creating advantages and then taking control of a point.
Position yourself slightly off-center to the forehand side and begin a crosscourt rally (no competition yet) with a partner similarly positioned off center (and this drill can be just as easily executed from the backhand corner trading either inside out forehands or cross court backhands). Back and forth, nothing fancy, create a consistent rhythm. Now agree that either one of you can break this pattern, but only with the following proviso’s – when the incoming crosscourt is either short or weak, and when the hitter is moving forward rather than racing wide past the sideline. Now start competing. Note that when you drive your own crosscourt deep and with pace your opponent will tend to drive the ball back to you. When you mishit or short the ball, he will more easily move forward to play up the line.
We are “forcing” these decisions at the moment, trying to learn when to break out of this crosscourt pattern. With practice you will also note how often others, for no good reason other than perhaps selecting the shot with greatest degree of difficulty, play up the line off extremely difficult crosscourt drives, nearly always resulting in an error. When Roger Federer is in a hole (yes it occurs now and then) I believe he plays much more often crosscourt to this pattern, and shoots it up the line either when the court is open, the ball is short, or he is ahead and “feeling it.”
Second Shot Pass
This drill creates opportunities for you to read an opponent’s balance at the net, his court positioning, and the subsequent decisions you make about his location and the quality of his shot.
Again with a practice partner, start a consistent rally, nothing crosscourt, just down the center, with one of you on the baseline and the other at the net. Consistent, nothing fancy, no competition. Then agree that the baseliner attempts to run the following pattern in a two shot sequence. The first groundstroke merely moves the volleyer off center, so they can play the ball but have to move for the volley – now for a moment the court is open to the other side, but the passer must decide under what circumstances they should go for the winner, what circumstances they should lob, and what circumstances they should go back to the center to restart the point. When the volleyer plays the ball deep and down the line, note how difficult the subsequent pass becomes. When the volleyer plays crosscourt but without pace or length note how much easier the pass becomes. These decisions must be made in a split second, but with focused practice you will develop the knack to know when you can or can’t pass, and if at the net when you are causing the opponent to choose crosscourt or down the line.
At the end of the day, patterns of play concern observation and anticipation. We must keenly observe every nuance of our opponents' court position, their balance, and their footwork. And then with this heightened awareness, we may begin to anticipate what they are most likely to do with our deep crosscourt drives to more easily decide what pattern to run. John McEnroe, with all the finesse we have ever seen in the modern game, ran these patterns to perfection. And now in a different era, with slightly different strokes, Roger Federer continually amazes with his patterns, and somehow knowing what an opponent will do perhaps even before he knows. And for mere mortals like you and I, the challenge is to go beyond simply hitting the ball, and learn to see so much more on the other side of the net.
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