Scouting an Opponent
The USTA adult league is upon us – team tennis, with often high expectations, spectator pressure, and playoffs looming in the not too distant future if only the team (and you) can win. So in the interest of winning what follows are some thoughts about scouting one’s opponents, looking for patterns, tendencies, and ultimately “chinks in their armor.”
And note, scouting is done in the warm-up, but equally, scouting and planning occur throughout a match as you continually note what shots your opponent hits well, what situations your opponent prefers, what situations your opponent avoids, where they direct their best shots, and how they react to their errors.
Let’s consider Joe, a 4.0 player, with adequate skills, but truly no feel for the backhand volley when the opponent floats the ball to that side of the court. At the end of the match, if he said he played well, perhaps he only hit and missed two backhand volleys. But if he said he had played just terribly, it may have been because he hit and missed six of seven backhand volleys, and on three occasions those errors occurred on game points. So, the only reason you play “well” or “poorly” is whether by accident or design your “Achilles heel” was either exposed or not. It is your task to constantly be looking for just such a weakness in the opponents, and then give them the opportunity to tell you that they have never played worse.
Forehand or backhand dominance?
I heard this one from Gordon Collins at a tennis conference in Florida in 1987. Gordon advised, in the warm-up to hit a few balls right at the opponent, so that they “step around” the ball. Generally, those who prefer forehands will step around the ball to hit a forehand, and those who prefer backhands will play this ball on the backhand side. I know this is true, for I prefer the backhand, and generally if not always will play a backhand in that situation. Not everyone prefers their forehand, and this is the first step in the scouting process.
Overhead preference. If the opponent takes overhead practice in the warm-up be sure and note where she aims her first practice overhead. Generally, this first hit will tell you whether she spins or hits the overhead flat, whether she hits it confidently or with caution, and whether she plays this shot to the forehand or backhand side. Then as the match progresses you can see whether this initial scouting has been accurate, and if so, you will have an edge when anticipating her smashes.
Tempo and pace. Be willing to hit the ball with different speed and at different heights. Sometimes your pace and power may be just what the opponent craves, and you never really find out that they “hate” the slow ball, unless you give them some. At our club, it is a given that most want to play “up” because they say (whether true or not) that they play better against a better (and presumably more hard hitting) opponent.
They call Santoro "The Magician" because he is the master at making opponents hit shots they are uncomfortable hitting.
Service placement. As the match progresses, keep track of their best serves, when they are hit and where. If they serve wide in the deuce court when leading, challenge them by standing with one foot in the alley to see if they can also serve to the “T. If they serve wide in the ad court when behind, stand well to the side with one or even two feet in the alley on the backhand side, to challenge them to serve elsewhere. Every player has a favorite serve, it is your job to quickly determine exactly what that serve is, and then show them you have discovered just that by changing your court position accordingly.
Advertisements. Listen carefully to the opponent, and note the reactions to their own errors. Everyone makes many errors throughout a match, but generally we are most bothered by that specific shot that continually troubles us. When you hear them exclaim, or mutter, “I stink”, “How could I miss that shot,” it will often tip you off to their most bothersome weakness. Once discovered, give them generous opportunities to hit that shot on important points, again, and again, and again.
Now for a look at doubles. Scouting may actually pay greater dividends in doubles, for if two opponents have dissimilar skills, it is totally possible to play “keep away” from the stronger player. Through a running dialogue with your partner, both between points, between games, and on the changeover, look carefully to determine which opponent has the better volley, which opponent has the better serve, which opponent has the better return, which opponent is most cautious, and which opponent is the gambler, and then position accordingly.
When returning serve, if the better and more aggressive volleyer is at the net, it may be wise to position two at the baseline when returning. On the other hand if the weaker volleyer (probably less inclined to poach) is at the net, the receiver's partner could be positioned on the service line or even closer to the net.
Rarely do two players serve identically; one may hit with more spin or more speed. But unfortunately most doubles teams position themselves the same way no matter who is serving. Be willing to stand back against the big server and stand in against the weak server. Once you determine how they are different, adjust your court position accordingly.
When serving, always have the server’s net partner make note of patterns and errors. My good friend, Juan Weiss, always expected me to count on his service games. So that at the end of one of his service games, I could say the deuce court receiver was 2 for 3 on forehands and 0 for 2 on backhands, and the ad court receiver was 0 for 2 on forehands 2 for 2 on backhands. Then in subsequent games I could easily advise Juan where to serve and when. The opposing receivers have strengths, weaknesses and patterns; it is up to the server’s partner to do the scouting.
Finally, some players take risks and play to alley quite often; others are much more conservative and play crosscourt looking for safety rather than outright winners. Continually try and identify these patterns with your opponents. Once determined, be more willing to guard the alley when facing the gambler on the other side of the net, and be more willing to poach and move to the center when facing the cautious opponent on the other side of the net.
Certainly winning is about preparation, fitness, mental toughness and more. But equally, if not more so, it can be about scouting and a determination to identify and play to your opponent’s weaknesses, and to anticipate their patterns. So listen carefully if they are ever to tell you, “I have never played worse than today!” If so, they have inadvertently paid you one of the highest compliments.
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