This article was first published in Australian Tennis Magazine.
Knowing little or nothing about an opponent is like sailing the high seas without a compass. It invites disaster. Venus Williams wasn’t even aware Barbara Schwartz was left-handed before the Austrian qualifier scored a shocking upset against her at the 1999 French Open.
You should learn as much as possible about opponents from all sources including your coach, other players, and from watching them yourself.
Here is what is most important to ascertain and analyse:
Style of play
Categorise your opponent by their grip: eastern, western (or semi-western), continental (rare today), or a hybrid.
The three major categories are serve-and-volleyers, baseliners and all-court players, like Roger Federer. Within each category, there are distinct sub-categories; baseliners include sluggers, finesse players and counter-punchers, while serve-and-volleyers vary too, from kick servers with devastating volleys to explosive servers with less penetrating volleys.
Is your opponent emotional, stoical, or somewhere in between? If they’re volatile, figure out what upsets them. How well do they handle pressure? Learn whether they over-hit or play smart percentage tennis on big points. Are they a fighter who plays every point with great determination, or are they an erratic competitor?
Physical strengths and weaknesses
You should learn as much as you can about your opponent’s stamina (in long matches and on hot days), speed, agility, strength and leaping ability. With injuries more prevalent than ever, knowledge of your opponent’s chronic and current injuries can factor in your strategy.
What worked and failed in previous matches? Ivan Lendl kept a notebook analysing past opponents with pertinent points about his matches with them, an excellent idea as memories fade. Remember that players’ games evolve and what succeeded in the past may need fine-tuning now.
Is the surface you’re playing on your adversary’s best or worst? How should you attack or defend to bring out your best and their worst? For example, if clay is their best surface, determine why they’re difficult to beat on it. If they’re vulnerable on fast courts, use your offensive weapons to exploit their weaknesses.
Be sure to study your opponent’s topspin and slice shots to establish how you can best handle them when they attack and exploit them when they defend. For example, if they hit a weak, floating slice, move closer to the bounce point or rush the net and pick off a strong volley.
If your opponent is short, you may want to draw them to net to take advantage of their lack of reach when they volley. High-bouncing ground strokes and kick serves work against the vertically challenged, as do lobs.
Does your opponent stand close to the baseline and pounce on short balls? If they do, you’ll have much less time to react, will need to be quick and sometimes shorten your backswing. Do they stand two metres behind the baseline during rallies? In that case, capitalise on their position by hitting deep cross-court shots to pull them off court, then power winners or stroke drop shots to punish their defensive returns.
No matter how well prepared you are with accurate knowledge and sound strategy before the match, your ability to analyse during the match is just as important. Without a coach – except in team competitions and your partner in doubles – you must essentially coach yourself. During changeovers, relax your body but also review any notes, and think about what is going right and wrong in your game plan. Your general thrust is to design and use tactics that bring out the best in your game and the worst in your opponent’s.
How intelligently you analyse your opponent can make the difference between winning and losing close matches.
For more tips from the experts on how to improve your game, check out the latest edition of Australian Tennis Magazine.