SO YOU WANT TO BE A STAR?
Part Three:
LEARN TO READ

Old Marion was only the first in a long line of players that humiliated me when I first started playing as a kid.  She sliced and diced me to death.  Another junior lobbed me to death.  I should have known better, but I asked an older guy everyone called Coyote to play, and he poked and pushed me to death.  No one seemed to play the way I'd been taught to hit the ball, and their strokes caught me off-guard.  I went whining back to Coach Joe.  He laughed, which always began with a cough and ended with a wheeze, then patted my head, and said, "No problem, kiddo.  Let's learn how to read an opponent."  Coach Joe was about to reveal one of the secrets of the stars.

What Is It, Some Kind of ESP?

Nope, it has nothing to do with mental telepathy.  And there isn't a sign hanging around your opponent's neck telegraphing his placements to you. 

An inexperienced player sees the ball after she hits it and it travels toward her opponent, and she sees it come back.  The more experienced player sees the ball, her opponent's relationship to the ball, what her backswing looks like, and where she is on the court.  After registering this trove of information in just a split second, she adjusts her position on the court and moves toward the placement she's anticipated.  True, she's guessing a bit, but it's an educated one that's usually right.  That's why she's moved inside the baseline, fixed her make-up, hitched her skirt and re-tied her shoes before you hit short, as she thought you might, and she jumps on your weak placement.

Admittedly, reading the court is one of the harder skills to teach, but I work with all my students on it, regardless of their level of play.  Here's the image I use to introduce the skill.  Vision on the court should be like an opening and closing fan.  When the ball is on your strings, the fan is closed and your vision is focused just on the ball.  But after you hit, the fan should immediately and fully open.  You need to put in your field of vision not just the ball traveling away from you, but your opponent and his court.  You need to see everything.  For it's from this glimpse that you're able to make an assessment about what shot is coming back at you, and move accordingly.  Once the ball is coming back, the fan begins to close, and at the moment of contact your eyes are only on the ball.  But if your anticipation is correct, you'll be in position more quickly to hit your shot.  And if you've seen the court, you know where to hit your shot.  Of course, sometimes your opponent is going to be in perfect position and you can't read his shot.  And sometimes he hits a shot that's so damn good, all you can do is try to get your racquet on it.  Welcome to tennis.  But a good deal of the time, you'd be surprised  how much you can anticipate about her shots and how much faster you can be in position to hit your own. 

WHAT AM I LOOKING FOR?

Reading The Body

What does your opponent look like when she's hitting her shot?  I'm not asking you what kind of skirt and top she's wearing, but, for example, where is she hitting the ball in terms of the strike zone?  Most comfortably, she'd like to hit around waist-high.  But let's say you've hit deep and forced her to hit up around her shoulders on her backhand side, or right at her feet.  Ouch.  These are compromised positions that usually result in a weak placement.  I'd bet she's going to hit short or put up a lob.  Accordingly, take a step inside the baseline, but just one step.  If your anticipation is correct and she hits short, you've got a great head start on getting to the ball.  If you're incorrect and she pulls a better shot out of her pocket than you've imagined, you're not over-committed into no man's land, and can easily step back to defend against a deep placement.  If she lobs, move in and take it on the fly.

What about a ball he hits low in the strike zone?  Watch his posture.  If his back is straight as he bends to hit, he can still hit a pretty decent shot even though it's low to the court.  But if you see his shoulders tip forward as he bends from the waist, that poor man's hurt, reaching just to hit the ball.  Look for a short and soft reply and move in that one step inside your baseline.

What about if she's stretched wide?  Goody!  Any time you can see your opponent stretched, it's party time.  If she's running backward or is stretched wide on her backhand side, you'll see her back, which, for a tennis player, is one of the loveliest parts of the body.  Move in and look for a short ball or a lob.  Same deal on her forehand side, though she's not as compromised if she's running back and hitting above her shoulder as on the backhand.  Nevertheless, move in.  Move in grinning.  You're about to have some fun.

What if he's hitting on the run?  Well, he's late getting to the ball, isn't he?  Don't be surprised if he hits down-the-line or floats a ball to give himself time to get back to the center of the court.

What if she's falling away as she hits?  The girl either has crappy footwork or she's crowded.  Look for a cross-court.  As her front foot pulls away, the racquet pulls with it, across her body.  It's very tough to hit down-the-line from a crowded position.

What if he pulls back as he hits?  I betcha he hits a lob.  Even good players fear hitting long when they lob, and they intuitively stand up and pull back as they swing.  So wrong.  This guy does have a sign around his neck letting you know his intentions.

What if she's running to get back to the middle when I'm about to hit?  If your last glimpse of your opponent finds her running sideways to net, hit behind and wrong-foot her.  Your last glimpse should find her in a split step, square to net.  If she's moving, she can't defend the court she's turned her back on.

Reading The Racquet

Is the backswing high or low?  A good many recreational players don't loop their backswings.  That means that if they shift between drives and chips (topspin and underspin), you can read the shot before it's been hit.  Flat or topspin drives must begin underneath the contact point to start the low-to-high dynamic of the swing.  Given that the primary purpose of such strokes is to contribute depth to the placement, should you see a low backswing, keep behind your baseline.  It's not that a short placement can't be hit with a low backswing, but the odds aren't with that guess.  Conversely, if you see the racquet lifted above the contact point, that guy is looking to chip the ball or hit a drop shot.  Move inside the baseline and look for a short ball.  Here again, it doesn't mean that a deep ball can't be hit with a racquet preparation that starts above contact, but the odds are for a short ball, and underspin is hit softer than drives; you'll have time to move back if the ball's deep.  

Is the racquet behind the body for the backswing or in front?  A drop shot should be sold as a drive.  That means a good player is going to turn her shoulders and take the racquet back as if she's going hit the daylights out of the ball before she squares to net, shortens her backswing and deftly feathers a drop shot.  But an inexperienced player will telegraph the drop shot or the chip by taking a high, shorter backswing, with the racquet in front of her body.  C'mon.  Start running in; you've been given fair warning.

But what about a low, short backswing?  Like you haven't seen this about a million times?  That girl is going to lob.  She's afraid of hitting long so she drops the racquet under the ball but with no shoulder turn or backswing.  Get going!  You should be camped at the T.

Note:  Though a high, shortened backswing, in front of the body, is a clear indication of a chip or drop shot, what is harder to read is whether the player is hitting down-the-line or cross-court.  My student Lucy, an A level doubles player, is known among her peers for passing down the alley.  Lucy takes very short backswings for all her ground strokes, and she's got quick hands.  Her short strokes trade pace for deception.  She waits until the last second and can hit in either direction.  Watch out for players like her.  Don't guess to a side.  You'll get burned.

What about those weird slices that bounce sideways?  That's called cross-slice or side-spin, and it, too, is readable.  Cross-slice is hit by starting the backswing off to the side of the body and bringing it back to the middle of the body.  If you've played against someone that has a good under-handed serve, you've seen this.  The spin that's imparted from such a stroke causes the ball to rotate toward its outside edge, so it kicks in that direction when it lands.  So, assuming right-handed play, if a player hits a forehand cross-slice down-the-line to your backhand, it's going to bounce to your left, toward the sideline on the backhand side.  The forehand cross-slice works the same, bouncing out wide toward your forehand sideline.  Look for those out-to-in strokes and you can read cross-slice a mile away.

Reading the Court

The red zone.  My students are often caught unprepared when their opponents hit short or hit a lob, yet often these placements have been forced by a shot into their opponent's red zone.  Relax.  I'm not talking about some part of the court where women of ill-repute hang out.  The red zone is an imaginary area three feet inside your opponent's baseline and three feet inside each of the sidelines.  If your shot lands in any of those areas, you've caused pain and injury to your opponent, you dastardly guy.  A shot deep to your opponent's baseline is going to trap him at his feet or push him back; a shot wide to his sideline is going to stretch him.  Either way, you should anticipate a short ball or a lob in reply.  Move in a step.  Be ready.  Reap what you've sowed.  Reading where your shot is going to land on your opponent's court is the first clue as to what might happen in reply.

Positioning.  When I watch my students play matches, I'm astonished how often their opponent's bad (and obvious) positioning goes unpunished.  Max has a huge first serve.  His opponent backs up three feet behind the baseline to return.  Do you think Max counters with a soft slice in front of his opponent for an ace?  Nuh uh.  Max doesn't see the opening; he's only got eyes for pace.  What about that deuce court receiver that stands five feet from the sideline toward the center mark, trying to protect her backhand?  Do you think Myrtle will take advantage and hit a slice out wide?  Nope.  Myrtle crowds her own center mark to more easily hit up the middle to her opponent's backhand, and in so doing, letting her opponent know what's about to happen.  In doubles, what about the returner's partner who rushes immediately to net after the return has passed the server's partner up at net?  Lily has stayed back after her serve.  Do you think she might put a lob over that eager-beaver tight to net in front of her?  Not a chance.  Lily only has eyes for the ball and, if she's lucky, the player that hit it; she doesn't see the other half of the court.  What about that poacher who cheats and moves early?  Thank God!  Willy sees this and chips down-the-line for a winner.

Find the Fish Head.   Another source of wonder for me is how often my students don't stay focused on their opponents' weaknesses, gnawing away like some dog on a bone.  In fact, often my students play to their opponents' strengths!  To cure this, I bring out my baseball hats with huge fishes on top of them.  For a doubles lesson, I make one player on each side wear the weird hat.  And I make that player play with her left hand!  At this point, we all hope it's obvious that the Fish Head is the weaker player on that side of the court.  The challenge is to make her play every shot!  If it's a singles lesson, I'll tie a big red ribbon on my left arm.  The challenge is to make me hit a backhand nearly every time.  Or I might use red ribbons to form a cross in the service boxes.  If I'm the sort of singles player that doesn't want to come in to net, X marks the spot.  Hit short and draw that baseliner in.  If you find a weakness, don't relent.

Reading the Shots

 Remember what shots your opponent plays in key situations.  If your opponent is in good position, with a full backswing, hitting waist high, we can't really know beforehand what she's likely to hit.  But it's a near guarantee that your opponent will go for her best shot first chance she has.  For example, you hit one of those approach shots that make you cringe, short, soft--what I call an Oh S__t Shot.  Remember how your opponent responds, given that she can do anything.  If she's Libby Lobber, she's going to lob; Patty Passer is going to pass.  If, God forbid, you hit that weak approach again, move early and guess toward her strength.  Or, for example, your opponent is down break point.  Where does she serve?  Don't you think she's going to go for her best placement?  Don't you think she might do that again if she's in the same bind?  Same thing if she's serving with a lead in either court.  What placement does she use to try to hurt you?  Remember these things.  Write them down on your forearm if necessary

Learn to Read

Start by sensing where your shots land and if you've hurt your opponent with your placement.  Then, see if you can include your opponent's body along with your vision of the ball.  If her position is compromised, you'll get a head start moving toward her shot.  Then, see if you can get a glimpse of her racquet along with her body.  That will deliver even more information.  Finally, see the whole court, the widest perspective available.  You'll still see the ball but your actual focus is the big picture:  open spaces, bad positioning, compromised position, and the racquet.  Take it all in.  You'll take home more W's.

 c Keith Shein

Next Tip:
So You Want To Be a Star?
Get a Weapon and Learn to Shoot