Tennis Scouting: How To Systematically Scout Your Opponents And Dissect Their Game

Scouting an oppponent before a tennis match
Scouting an oppponent before a tennis match is the key to smart tactical game
The term tennis scouting is used to describe the process of analyzing your opponent prior to your actual match with him.

You can scout your opponents when they practice or when they play matches, but just watching someone play will not help you get the key information.

You actually need to know what to look for.

This guide will help you focus on the most relevant parts of the game of your opponents and help you determine their strengths, weaknesses and how you need to approach the match in order to have the best chances of winning it.

Tennis has four major parts when it comes to playing and training: technique, tactics, mental game and the physical (fitness) part. These same four foundations of tennis can also be used for scouting your opponents.

Your main focus with each of these foundations is to look for strengths and weaknesses; your goal in the upcoming match with that opponent will be to take advantage of his weaknesses and to neutralize his strengths.

Analyzing Technique

The most basic question you need to ask yourself when scouting an opponent must be: Which are his weak shots? and Which are his best shots?

- Groundstrokes: Which shot is more consistent — forehand or backhand?

Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that the backhand is a weaker shot. Many players have very consistent backhands because they avoid mistakes, but they have very erratic forehands that sometimes produce winners (but more often mistakes). So have an open mind when assessing groundstrokes.

Also, determine their ability to play offensive and defensive shots. Again, most players defend well on the backhand side (because they can slice) but defend poorly on the forehand side (since very few people attack that side). How do they handle fast balls, slow balls, high balls and very low balls?

Serve: Note the speed and accuracy of the first serve and of the second serve.

Just store the info in your brain — it will be there when you need it. Since you cannot affect your opponent’s serve with a shot, just watch for poor technique — it will most likely break down under pressure.

Return: Can your opponent shorten the backswing on fast serves? Which groundstroke is more consistent? Can your opponent attack with a return shot?

Volley: Which volley is more consistent (forehand or backhand)? Does your opponent have troubles with high volleys, balls coming into his body or very low volleys?

Overhead: Is your opponent consistent and calm when hitting an overhead? Is that a weakness or a strength?

Your final assessment of scouting an opponent and looking at his technique can look like this example:

Analyzing Tactics

When you’re scouting opponents, you need to look for their preferred strategies (such as waiting for opponents’ mistakes, looking to hit a forcing shot or looking to come to the net) and their preferred patterns of play (including opening the court with a cross-court forehand and coming to the net after a down-the-line approach shot, or playing slice two or three times and then playing a drop shot, or serving wide and then looking to wrong foot).

Of course, also look at the situations in the match where you notice that the player is not comfortable or doesn’t execute the shots well.

Is your opponent comfortable at the net? How about chasing short cross-court shots? Can he play high bouncing balls well? Does he prefer pace or no pace?

What is his typical serving pattern? Does he vary the serves or not? Where does he usually return — down the middle? Does he return only with a backhand slice or block when you serve there?

Basically, look for patterns of play that the opponent likes and the ones that he doesn’t.

Your final assessment could look like this: He is a counter-puncher, looking to keep the ball in play, and makes very few mistakes on the backhand but goes for his shots on flat and short balls coming to his forehand. He doesn’t like loopy shots and always retreats a few meters behind the baseline — so I can sneak in for a volley.

He also returns with a slice all the time, mostly down the middle so I can surprise him with a serve and volley here and there. He likes to serve to the backhand most of the time, and doesn’t ever use the body serve. He likes to play a drop shot only on the backhand side if the situation is right.

Analyzing the Mental Strength

When you scout your opponents, look for signs of mental weaknesses.

These can be: loss of focus; getting upset for making easy mistakes; double faulting at big points; playing very safely at big points or perhaps playing very aggressively at big points. Some players can take their game to another level when they have to — and you’ll have to step up too in those moments.

Look for signs of giving up when the score is not in their favor. Do they still fight when 4:1 down?

Can they handle the pressure of longer rallies on big points, or are they looking to shorten to point and escape that pressure by going for the shots when it’s not really the time?

Your assessment can look like this: He starts nervously and makes some mistakes — therefore I need to start the match looking for consistency and allowing him to make mistakes. He plays focused most of the time, except when he misses an easy sitter. He is still upset the next point, so I need to play the next point smart and not rush the play.

His serve can break down when he is serving for the set or the match, so I’ll be very calm if he happens to be in front. Just focus on my game and don’t panic. He’ll probably self-destruct. If he is consistently outplayed, he stops fighting. In case I am a break up, I’ll try and force the game a little bit more and see if I can break his will.

Analyzing Fitness Level

Look for speed on short distances, stamina in long rallies and overall stamina. These are all very different processes when it comes to energy requirements and outputs.

A player can be very fast in short runs or can play well for two hours but cannot sustain longer rallies. Another player can sustain longer rallies but only for about 30 minutes. After that, he may not have any more stamina left.

So just get take a look at those three aspects of the physical preparation of your opponent.

Your final assessment may look like this: He is not that fast in short sprints, so short cross-court shots and drop shots can work well. He typically starts to breathe heavily after five strokes and his movement loses the coordination. My goal is to extend some rallies to at least six shots and keep my mind focused on hitting just one shot more than he — even though I’ll be tired too.

His overall stamina is very good, so it makes no sense for me to look for a very long match. So I’ll play my game looking for his weaknesses, but if we keep neutralizing each other from the baseline and the rallies start to get longer, I need to hang in there for more than six shots. He will most likely break down and miss.

Once you have separately analyzed all four parts of your opponent’s game, you can try and bring them together into one simple and short game plan.

If you’ve been making some conclusions (like in the examples of the final assessment above) along the way, you already have a good game plan.

The Dangers of Over-Adjusting Your Own Game

The biggest danger when preparing a game plan based on a scouting report of an opponent is to over-adjust your game.

For example, you may determine that your opponent is relatively slow and that drop shots would be the best tactics to use — but if you’re not good at playing drop shots, you’ll make more mistakes than you’ll make points!

So in reality, most players can only slightly adjust their games because they are not versatile enough to modify their game ideally to exploit opponents’ weaknesses.

So when you analyze your opponent and make a theoretical conclusions of what game would be best to exploit their weaknesses and minimize their strengths, ask yourself which of those tactics and game plans can you play well. Use only those that you can play well for your Plan A.

Having A Plan B and C

Your scouting report and your future game plan should also include your Plan B and a Plan C. The Plan B is your second-best way of playing.

It’s typically a more risky way of playing, but you’ll use it when your Plan A doesn’t work. I can’t really say at what score your Plan A doesn’t work, but you’ll soon get the feel for it. If you find yourself at a break down and your opponent easily counters your game plan, then Plan A is not working.

Plan B includes some of the shots and playing patterns that you’re not really best at (like the above drop shot example), but maybe the statistics will be on your side this match and you’ll pull those shots off.

If that doesn’t work, it’s also good to have a Plan C. Plan C is either going for your shots and at possible occasion or playing a super-safe game.

My typical Plan C is to serve and volley on almost every point, to chip and charge at least once in my return game and to look for the first opportunity to come to the net.

You can also go for a winner on every second serve of your opponent, and serve your second serves at 90 percent the speed of your first serve.

Some players revert to pushing and while I don’t encourage you to play that kind of a game every time you play (since you can’t improve your game), I do recommend to use it sometimes (if you’re reasonably good at it) when it’s a key match and you just want to win that final.

If everything else fails, test your opponent and “ask” him to finish you off while you won’t make a mistake.

In summary, take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent in the technical, tactical, mental and physical parts of the tennis game, adjust the ideal game plan to your abilities, strengths and weaknesses, and consider what your Plan B and possibly Plan C will be when you start the match.

Such thorough preparation will give you lots of confidence and calm before and during the upcoming match because you’ll know that you’re prepared and have an answer for most problems that can happen on court.

One more thought: Visualize these patterns of play as many times as you can before the match.

You need to actually store images—or even better, “videos” of how you execute certain patterns of play—because when you play the match, you won’t be thinking in the words in which you prepared your game plan, but rather in ideas and visual thinking.

See yourself playing well, and you’ll be amazed how those stored patterns of play will happen during the match without much conscious effort on your part.



Win More Matches When It Matters Most

Most tennis matches are decided not by a better stroke but by a better tactical play and by a stronger mind.

serena williams lessons