Most players understand that you need to play many different styles to learn how to play against them. Otherwise, when you face them in a match, you will struggle with them. And so smart players make sure to play against a variety of styles, and learn how to play each of the main ones.
However, many players mistake playing different styles with playing different players. Let’s suppose you spend the large bulk of your playing time at your club playing against ten other players, most of them probably around your level. You might be playing against a decent range of playing styles, though probably not all. However, since you are playing mostly against the same players, week after week, month after month, even year after year, while you become very familiar and good against those players, there’s one huge thing you are not doing – and that’s making it a habit to adjust to different players.
It’s not enough to just play against different styles, though that’s a big part of it. If you play mostly the same players all the time, then aren’t regularly adjusting to new players. And so when you do have to adjust to a new player, it’s much more difficult to do then if you were playing different players regularly, in which you are constantly adjusting your game to players you rarely or never play, and so it becomes a habit.
There are really two types of adjusting. One is adjusting your strokes against different players. This is somewhat obvious. If you play in a tournament and your opponent uses long pips in a way you are not used to, or has a loop that’s different from the players you are used to playing against, or hits his shots flatter, or has a weird push, or has a different serve, or something else – everyone has something unique in their game – you have to adjust your strokes to these differences. If you are not used to playing different players regularly, you will likely struggle making the adjustment since adjusting your strokes to new players is not something you are used to doing. And so you struggle. Perhaps you eventually make the adjustment, but it’s also likely that you lose the match, and come off the table still uncomfortable with whatever it was the opponent did differently.
This type of adjustment isn’t subtle, and most players understand that they need to adjust their strokes against different opponents, even if they often go right back to playing the same group of players all the time. They at least understand the problem, and perhaps will make some attempt to fix it by looking to play different players. If they do this enough, they might develop the habit of adjusting their strokes to new opponents.
But as noted above, there is a second type of adjusting – tactical. This is more subtle. If you struggle to adjust your strokes to an opponent, it’s obvious. But if you aren’t used to adjusting your tactics to new opponents – which you develop by playing new opponents regularly – then you likely will not even realize it afterwards. You may have adjusted your strokes perfectly and felt comfortable out there, but still lost because, unknowingly, you aren’t used to adjusting your tactics to different opponents, and so play them as if they were one of the players you are used to playing.
I’m going to use my own game as an example here. During my prime years I had a very steady game – in fact, from my backhand corner to my wide forehand I had a brick wall defense that few could get through. Many opponents would have great rallies with me, but were unable to get through that steadiness. (I was primarily a forehand attacker, but once an opponent attacked I’d fall back on mostly blocking and countering.) What only a few smart opponents figured out was that while I was steady, I struggled with one type of attack – into my wide backhand, outside the corner. Those who played me regularly, and those that were used to adjusting to new opponents, figured out that when attacking against me, the goal was to get a ball that landed a little short, and then attack that ball just outside the corner on my backhand side. But since most tournament opponents did not play me regularly and were not good at adjusting tactically, most didn’t figure this out, and so when they got that slightly short ball, they’d continue to attack the corners and my middle (elbow), and I’d be a brick wall – but only because they failed to adjust by going after that huge hole off to the side of that brick wall.
While I’m on the topic of using my game as an example, I’m still amazed at how many opponents never figured out how strong I was forehand looping against forehand pendulum serves, while I struggled with the opposite type of sidespin (backhand, tomahawk, and reverse pendulum serves) – and so they’d continue to give me a steady diet of forehand pendulum serves to the point where I’d sometimes hold back just to encourage them to keep giving me those serves. (Thank you!) In both cases given here, my opponents usually were not in the habit of adjusting tactically to new players, and so they didn’t adjust tactically.
The root of the problem of not adjusting your strokes and tactics to new players is not regularly playing new players, which is where you develop the habit of making this adjustment. However, the latter – developing the habit of adjusting your tactics to new players – is a bit more subtle and insidious, as while the former pretty much you slaps you in the face if you don’t adjust, the latter does not.
The cure to all of this, of course, is to seek out new players, at your club, at different clubs, in leagues, and in tournaments. If this means playing against weaker players just so you can play someone different, then do so – everyone brings something different to the table that you can practice against.