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Anticipation: Part 2

Jay Berger

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What are the 4 types of anticipation?

In my first article on anticipation, we talked generally about anticipation and some of the ways to develop it for yourself as a player. (Click Here.) Now let's take it a step further in this second article, and talk about 4 specific types of anticipation.

One of the basic problems in learning to anticipate well is that the human eye is not efficient enough to allow us to move based on just seeing the ball. This is because the human eye sees only around ten frames per second. So if the ball is traveling 60 miles an hour, the eye sees the ball about every 9 feet. And in the time when we're not seeing the ball, the mind is filling in the blanks based on experience of what that ball's going to do.

Mindful But Relaxed

This shows the importance of practicing in a mindful way, to gain as much experience as possible in perceiving what the ball does. This is so the mind fills in those gaps accurately based on the information that you do have.

Watch closely how relaxed Pete's jaw stays.

Now to really do this, you also need to be very relaxed. You want your mind to be relaxed and open and ready to take in information. If our minds are tight, and we're focusing on winning, or we're focusing on the crowd or we're focusing on the weather out there, we're not going to be able to do this. This goes back to being mindful and being focused in the present as we discussed in the first article.

I think this is a problem here for our players in the U.S. This is because they are almost never on the court by themselves. They're constantly on the court with a coach, being told what's happening, what's going on, what to focus on. It's great to get coaching, but I believe you're going to learn the most when you're on the court and taking the principles that a coach has given you and applying them.

Subconsciously our minds should be evaluating everything that's going on the court. As far as anticipation goes, this means being open to what is actually happening and processing that input directly yourself, rather than filtering everything through something that a coach is telling you.

It may sound strange, but to learn to do this, you want your facial muscles to be relaxed. That's actually a good indication of how relaxed you really are. If you watched Pete Sampras play you saw this. His jaw was very relaxed and sometimes you could actually see it bouncing up and down as he played, similar to runners in the Olympics.

Recognizing patterns means anticipating short balls.

One of the things that I observed about Federer is that in every picture how relaxed he seems on the court and how his face is almost serene. It's really incredible.

1. Patterns

So what are the four types of anticipation? The first one is recognition of patterns, and the strengths and weaknesses of opponents. We develop this type of anticipation by scouting opponents, knowing what their best shots are, what their weaker shots are. We also develop by feeling what happens in the actual exchanges when we face them ourselves.

We can use this knowledge to make adjustments, realizing that every time I go to this person's backhand, they do this with the ball. Or realizing that you want to stay away from that side of his game. Or that when I hit a certain ball or a certain combination, I usually get a short ball.

The second type: recognizing grips, stances, and preparation.

If you don't anticipate and only react after the ball is coming towards, it's often too late. You are not going to get a good jump on the ball. Without this ability you will never reach your highest level of play.

2. Grips and Stances

The second kind of anticipation is a little more technical, learning to recognize an opponents grips, stances, and racquet preparation, and what that may mean in terms of the type of shots he hits. The fact is that there are certain shot characteristics that go with certain grips. Players can only do certain things based on their grips. Again, recognizing this comes from practicing in a mindful manner, doing a lot of live ball drills, playing a lot of sets.

What balls create problems for which players?

For example, if you have a player with a severe western grip on the forehand side, they may end up blocking a lot of forehand returns on big serves. Or they might not return quite as well when the ball's out wide. So an understanding of grips is critical. Given the grip, what is the preferred strike zone? What balls will they not handle as well?

It's different for two-handers versus one-handers, and it can also vary for the one-handers with the more extreme grips. They are going to like the ball higher than with the more classic grips. So what may be a problem for one player is not a problem for another, and you've got to be able to recognize that.

Some players will give away the shot with their preparation and come up noticeably higher with the racket when they are going to slice the ball.

Understanding stances is also very important. If a player is more open, he is more likely to go cross court with the ball, and when the stance is more netural, he is more likely to go down the line with the ball.

Great players hit different shots from the same stance.

But the more proficient a player gets, the greater the ability to hit different shots from the same stance, and go down the line from an open position, or bring the ball crosscourt when the stance is more closed. So which cues apply against which opponents? These are things you have got to learn as a player.

These are clues that can give you a jump on the ball. When I play, or when I'm watching a match, I'm constantly trying to figure out what shot the player's going to hit from a given stance. It's amazing to me how many players give these things away.

3. Geometry

The third type of anticipation is has to do with the geometry of the court. And by this, I mean where I am in the court, as well as where my opponent is on the court. A lot of your opponent's responses are going to be the result of this relative positioning.

The third type: anticipating the geometry of the court.

If my opponent is further back from the court, it is going to limit his options. If he is further off the court, it's going to limit his options. If I'm in the court and hit a good shot from a good position, I can anticipate the next shot that is likely to be coming back.

And this is something that a lot of players don't pay attention to. The best players do. But I don't see a lot of our players at a young age doing the same thing. They haven't played enough matches, so their level of experience is not there.

They may not be open to what is really happening on the court, or they may have learned only to recognize input filtered through a coach. So they don't really understand the implications of where they are in the court and where their opponent is in the court. Are they up? Are they back? Are they wide? And what are the limitations that go with this?

When you read the stance or you read the patterns it's based on repetitive experience. But it's not just practicing, it's practicing in a mindful way. It's not waiting for my coach to tell me the other player is going down the line.

The fourth type: anticipating spin and depth.

It's practicing out there with a hunger for the knowledge to try to get better. It's practicing with the correct intensity level, practicing with a commitment to run down every ball. I'm not conscious of going through all these different options in mind, it's nothing conscious, it's something that happens sub-consciously. It's taking in experiences that have happened during that match and applying them.

4. Spins and Depth

The fourth type of anticipation that's really important is understanding the spins and the depth of the ball. And this is important again, because of the limitations of the human eye.

You've got to learn to pick up the trajectory that a ball's going to go take based on the spins and the depths and the type of balls that your opponents are going to be hit. You've to recognize the spin immediately when it comes off the racket and know what that means for how the ball is going be moving and how it is going to bounce when it reaches you.

It amazes me how many junior players can't recognize slice today, and how they are actually fooled by the way it bounces off the court. And how important is this for return of serve? Especially with the speed of the modern game, when players have 2/3's of a second to make a return, or sometimes less?

Too much dead ball feeding can kill anticipation.

Anticipation Killers

Rather than helping, some of the things young players do in their training are actually anticipation killers.

A major anticipation killer is too much dead ball feeding. Now, I'm a big believer in dead ball feeding. And I did a tremendous amount of dead ball feeding growing up. And I mean a lot.

In order to improve your movements, in order to improve your shot selection, in order to improve a lot of the areas of your game, dead ball feeding's great. I believe in dead ball feeding, but my dead ball feeding was always backed up on a daily basis with live ball practice and set play.

A second anticipation killer is lack of intensity. Without the right intensity level you are not going to be able to focus on all the things we've talked about: the stances, the grips, the preparation, spins, trajectories. You are going to be surprised by the ball and react to what happens, rather than anticipatng what happens.

Great anticipation and great movement is an elite combination.

I think poor anticipation can make a player who is actually a good mover look slow on the tennis court. And great anticipation can take somebody that's not very explosive and actually make them look very quick.

And the combination of a great mover with a great anticipation skills? It is very hard to get the ball by that person. That's Michael Chang, that's Lleyton Hewitt, that's Kim Clijsters, that's Rafael Nadal. These are players that have great explosive speed and have done the work in practice that we've talked about that allows them to know where that ball's going almost all the time.

So anticipation really is a skill that has to be honed over many years. This isn't anything that all of a sudden you can improve. But it's something to get really good at, something that has to happen every time you walk on the court, every ball you hit. You're constantly thinking of what's going to happen after I hit this ball, what's happened in the past, what's going to happen in the future.

Experienced players anticipate automatically.

It all has to happen automatically in the match. And it's amazing to me that it's something as a player that I can't turn off. It's been so built into my system that even if I'm hitting with my wife, and I put a ball down low, I make the correct response to move forward, and I'm sure it's the same with every really good mover.

I'm sure the same thing happens to every good player that ends up coaching. When he's out there giving a clinic, and he sees a player stretch, his initial response, something that he cannot even control is to take a couple of steps forward. So these are things you've been doing them for so many years that they cannot be changed.

But it will never happen if you're not playing the correct amount of sets, or if you're not playing with the correct intensity level or if you're not playing with a commitment to run down every ball. It's a package or combination of skills you must work everyday to develop.

Jay Berger is a USTA National Coach based in Key Biscayne, Florida. As a player, Jay reached a world ranking of #7 and won 4 pro singles titles before retiring in 1991. He also played Davis Cup twice for the United States and was undefeated in Davis Cup match play.

Jay was the Head Men's and Women's Coach at the University of Miami before joining the USTA national coaching staff in 2003. As the top American junior player in 1985, he reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open, the best result of any #1 junior in the Open era. He also played varsity tennis at Clemson University.

An experienced salt water angler, Jay strongly disputes the claim that USTA Director of Coaching education Paul Lubbers is the finest bone fisherman among Florida coaches and teaching pros.

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