One of the key abilities of good tennis players is anticipation. It's an ability to predict with very high probability what the opponent will play.
There are two distinct ways how good anticipation improves reactions and the whole game:
1. The player anticipates opponent's shot / tactic and prepares the right response (or possible responses) in his mind a split second before opponent hits the ball. Thus when the opponent does play the shot the player reacts immediately.
2. The player anticipates opponent's shot and moves before the opponent even plays the ball.
This is most common when the opponent is facing a relatively easy ball which he attempts to put away or when is hitting the smash. The player has to move before the contact because if he waits to see where the ball goes he'll be too far from it to reach it.
Roger Federer anticipates Nadal's passing shot down the line. See how Roger moves to his left before Nadal hits the ball.
The main benefit of good anticipation is therefore shortened reaction time and that leaves us more time to set up for the ball, and steady ourselves for the shot. And the more time we have to play the ball, the more likely it is that we'll make it.
There's also another type of anticipation which all beginners (and some intermediates) lack and that's the anticipation of different types of ball bounces.
The ball bounces from the ground differently depending on whether it was hit flat (almost no rotation), with spin (forward rotation) or with slice (backward rotation).
In order to time the ball well we have to see how the opponent hit the ball so that we can anticipate how the ball will bounce so that we can adjust our timing.
How Anticipation Works in Your Mind
When we anticipate the opponent's response in a tennis match, we actually prepare in advance in our mind his possible shots and once his shot matches the one stored in our mind, we react very quickly.
If we do not anticipate - meaning we have no idea what the most likely shots of our opponent will be, we will react much slower to the eventual shot.
You can compare this to how your computer works. If you load a program from the hard drive - let's say you start your Email client, it will take quite some time to fully load and be ready to use.
But if you later minimize it, use other programs in the mean time and then click on it again, it will load very quickly and be ready to use almost immediately. That's because the email client was already prepared in the memory (RAM) of the computer. And RAM is much faster than the hard drive (about million times).
The anticipation works exactly the same. If we do not "load" any possible shots and solutions to our mind (RAM), we'll have to load them from deeper levels of consciousness (hard drive) and that takes more time. We'll react late.
Anticipating your opponent actually requires a lot of mental effort. Your brain must constantly "pre-load" possible shot combinations in each ball exchange.
That's why many people don't do this well. It's simply too much effort. This effort has to be trained over and over again and it eventually becomes automatic.
We still need to read our opponent and store new information - new possibilities - but our brain is used to that and will work with much less effort.
How to Work On Anticipation
1. The first type of anticipation training is the one just mentioned above – reading the type of shot (flat, spin, slice) and looking closely at how the ball bounces differ.
Drill: Start playing in the service boxes (mini tennis) and have one player change types of rotation (flat, spin, slice) while the other player has to yell out immediately what type of shot was played.
At an easier level the player has to yell out the type of shot AFTER the shot when he actually sees the shot being played and he can also observe the ball's rotation.
At a higher level the player needs to yell out the type of shot BEFORE the shot is played and has to SEE how the opponent PREPARES for the shot. We can anticipate the type of shot played just by seeing the type of preparation the opponent makes.
This is critical to learn if we want to be good at getting to drop shots for example. In order to counter drop shots well we need to be able to read opponent's preparation and start running for the short ball sometimes even before he plays it.
Because if we don't read the opponent's intention early enough and he plays a good drop shot we'll most likely be far too late to get to the ball.
2. The most important type of anticipation when we play a match is the ability to predict opponent's patterns of play.
We become better at this type of anticipation the longer the match is going on. The more shots of our opponent we see, the more we can discern different patterns that he likes to play.
We can learn for example:
- Where he likes to serve first (second) serves on deuce / ad court
- Where he likes to return first (second) serves served down the T (out wide)
- Which shot he prefers if the ball is played down the middle and where he likes to play it (example: Nadal prefers a forehand and he likes to play it to opponent's backhand. He does that on 70-80% of the time.)
- Where the opponent likes to attack and how
- Where the opponent likes to defend and how (cross court with slice)
- Whether he plays drop shots, short cross court shots and other types of specialty shots
- How the opponent plays big points – is he aggressive or whether he plays them safe.
- What are his preferred shots and patters of play on big points
The key to learning and anticipation these various patterns of play is to look for them. It may sound simple and it is – but so many player simply become overwhelmed by a tennis match, the opponent, the situation and the pressure that their mind just goes blank and they simply are in a state of reaction.
They are simply unable to think clearly and process information. They feel like in a state of panic and they only are able to think clearly again when the match is over.
It's important to break this state of anxiety and reaction with logical analytical thinking. We need to keep asking ourselves what patterns of play have we seen before.
We need to ask ourselves the question "Where will my opponent play the ball?" over and over again. We need to ask ourselves that when we return, when we serve and while we rally.
Once we start asking our mind these questions, we'll also start noticing the patterns of play and we'll get the right answers.
Another key to developing this type of anticipation is to watch the opponent preparing for the shot.
Most players do not know where to focus their eyes and how they need to refocus at the right moment.
Here's what your eyes need to focus on:
- after you have hit the ball you need to watch the ball where it goes
- you need to keep your eyes on the ball all the time and never focus 100% on your opponent. You need to "see" your opponent with peripheral vision.
It's very dangerous to focus 100% on your opponent because you may miss the moment of contact when he hits the ball.
That moment is critical for your brain to time the split step and to receive lots of information from the contact which we process subconsciously.
An experienced tennis player can detect a slight mishit, the trajectory of the racquet head through the ball (which immediately determines ball's trajectory), the amount of spin (which determines how the ball will bounce) and other factors.
That's why your eyes must see crystally clear the moment of contact of your opponen'ts racquet and the ball.
If you focused too much on watching your opponent prepare for the shot and you were trying to read what he was attemtping to play, you would have missed the moment of contact and then your eyes would have to find the ball somewhere in the trajectory towards you.
That would take time and would actually delay your reaction!
Therefore you must focus much more on the point of contact and yet have a kind of soft focus which allows you to peripherally see how your opponent moved and executed the shot.
If your focus on the ball is to strong you won't see anything else besides the ball - and that won't work either as you won't be able to read your opponent's movements.