Pattern Recognition - The Foundation Of Tennis Tactics
Most tennis strategy and tactics training involves learning new ways to outplay your opponent. These can include ways to play new tactics, either in offense or in neutralizing.
However, what often happens in a tennis lesson is that the players practice the tactics, but they don't practice pattern recognition.
What is pattern recognition?
Pattern recognition is the ability to see order in a chaotic environment - namely, the tennis game. While ball exchanges between two players may seem quite random, a more detailed look will show you that there are some patterns that keep repeating.
Here are some examples of patterns: serving the second serve always to the backhand side; playing topspin on the forehand and slice on the backhand side; always approaching the net with a down the line shot; and so on.
Therefore, the real problem for players is that, while they actually know what tactic to use against a certain play from the opponent, they fail to recognize the pattern that is being played against them!
Brad Gilbert said it nicely in his Winning Ugly, "You have to figure out who is doing what to whom".
That's pattern recognition. Recognize what pattern your opponent is using against you, so that you can anticipate your response sooner and find the right counter-tactic.
Check this Federer - Gonzales video and try to figure out the main tactic - the pattern! - that both players used. (Hint: Federer was coming to the net on Gonzales' backhand almost every ball in the first third of this video. Gonzales was looking to dominate with his forehand - one shot to the backhand and another to open court on forehand side of Federer...
Sometimes, it's very difficult to spot the patterns, because players use many of them. Many times they just have to play the ball cross court, for example, because this gives them the most time to recover to the right court position.
Therefore, what you need to look for are those slightly unusual, or very common, shots that both players played.
If you watch carefully, you'll see that Nalbandian kept attacking Federer's backhand. Federer, on the other hand, often played to Nalbandian's forehand.
It's much easier to recognize Nalbandian's pattern of play, because it happens very often. However, Federer's pattern doesn't happen that often and it's more difficult to spot.
In the high level tennis (ATP and WTA), some players even know where their opponent likes to serve in certain point situations. For example, Pete Sampras very often served down the T when he was in trouble.
Even I knew that, so you can be pretty sure that Agassi and some other great tacticians were aware of that serving pattern.
And just for fun, take a look at this compilation of shots which have singled out Nadal's pattern of play:
How can you improve your pattern recognition?
First, watch tennis and try to figure out what it is that each player is trying to accomplish by playing certain shots. At first, you will see only shots and you won't see the connection between them.
You may see a ball to the left, one to the right, then a drop shot and then a lob. Is there a pattern? Maybe. Maybe the pattern is to keep opponent running as much as possible.
Does the player ever play a wrong-footing shot? or are the shots always played into the open court?
Eventually you will see more and more of the tennis patterns and tactics that are being played in front of you.
Now it's up to you to take that improved pattern recognition onto the court and start observing the patterns of your opponent. Your opponent may play some patterns consciously, while others may be subconscious.
When you become really good at noticing "who is doing what to whom", then you'll know very quickly what counter- pattern (tactic) you can use.
You'll also realize that you'll be doing a lot of stuff to your opponent, and they will have no idea that you're playing a smart tactical game, instead of just hitting the balls randomly over the net.
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