Many players confuse anticipation with reaction. Reaction is when you see what the opponent is going to do and then respond to it. (You can usually do so before he actually hits the ball, often early in their forward swing. Reaction is almost always more important than anticipation, but both have their place.) Anticipation is when you realize what your opponent is going to do before he gives a direct indication of what he’s going to do, and so can position yourself early for the shot. (A key thing is to know when he’s committed to a shot so you don’t move too soon and get burned if he changes direction.) How can you anticipate an opponent’s shot? Here are a few examples.
- Patterns. Some players, in fast rallies or when pressed, hit almost everything crosscourt, so you can anticipate that. There are endless possible patterns as everyone’s different, so you should learn to pick up these patterns from different opponents. For example, when players go to my wide forehand, I like to set up like I’m going crosscourt, and at the last second go down the line. If I play it aggressively, most opponents can only react to my shot if they anticipate which direction I’m going—and smart ones learn to expect the down-the-line shot. (Very few do.)
- Serve Returns. When receiving, many players are cautious, and so return most serves crosscourt. You can anticipate this. For example, if you serve deep to the backhand (especially with a sidespin serve that breaks away from them, such as a forehand pendulum serve), most players automatically return crosscourt. If your serve is good, then it’s tricky to attack it down the line, and so if your forehand is better than your backhand, you can edge over and look to attack with it from the backhand side.
- Your Positioning. If you go out of position, you can often anticipate your opponent will go to the “open” court. But since you know this early on, you can move before he actually hits there, and thereby get there in time. This especially happens when you attack with the forehand from the backhand corner, thereby leaving your wide forehand open. Smart players learn to return the ball to both angles, but many do not, and so you don’t have to wait to know where they are going—to the wide forehand.
- Opponent’s Swing. You can often guess where an opponent is going from his backswing and the start of his forward swing. (This can also go down as reaction.) For example, if you go to an opponent’s wide forehand, and he takes a long backswing, he’s probably going down the line since he won’t have time to get outside the ball and take it crosscourt.
- Against a Smash. Most players can’t react to a smash unless they can anticipate where it’s going. If so, then at the last second, as the opponent is starting his forward swing and is committed to a direction, you should anticipate the direction. With experience, you’ll learn the patterns for most opponents, and from that and from watching their swing well before contact, you’ll be able to begin anticipating their probable direction.