Placement is often the unsung hero of many players. I often watch up-and-coming players compete, and it's obvious which ones have been conditioned to focus on placement - it's a huge difference. (As a coach, among the top juniors I have a pretty good idea of which do this well, which do not, and their general tendencies.)
I remember watching two top juniors play, and while it was close, one of them tended to dominate the rallies, and won. Why did he win? His shots weren't better; he simply placed them better. He had a great instinct of when to go to the wide forehand, wide backhand, or middle (mid-point between forehand and backhand, roughly the middle). When he went wide, he went as wide as possible, never giving the opponent an easy ball. It's not enough to be aware that you need to move the ball around; you need to do this regularly for a long period of time and learn as you do what types of placements and patterns work. When you do this, it becomes instinctive. (Good tactics is maybe 90% reflexive.) If a coach harps on the player to be aware and (between points and matches) think about placement, more and more it becomes habitual, until you barely need to focus on it anymore - the player does it instinctively.
Placement is key to all players of all ages and styles. In general, you need to develop the instinctive habit of when to go to each of the three spots (wide forehand and backhand, and middle), while also being able to adjust this to each player. When I talk to a player between games or in a timeout, if I talk placement, it's usually whether to focus on two spots, or play all three, and when.
For example, against one player who was strong from both wings but was very good from the wide forehand, the key was to attack the wide backhand and middle, and rarely go to the forehand unless it was essentially an ace. Since some of the rallies were long, it was tempting to move the ball around more, but that's exactly what the opponent was waiting for. Instead, I had my player just go to those two spots, wide backhand and middle, until the opponent made a mistake, or he changed directions to the wide forehand - and then my player was all over that with his forehand.
Against another player, we attacked all three spots, but with one goal in mind - end the point to the wide forehand, since that's the spot the opponent often left open. So we rallied until we saw that shot, and then went after that open spot.
How can you incorporate instinctive ball placement into your game?
- Make a habit of playing all three spots - and make sure you are really going to the wide angles and to the opponent's middle. (Going to the middle takes practice since it's a smaller target, it moves, and different players have different middles, depending on whether they favor one side or the other.)
- Study what happens with these shots. For example, if you go to one opponent's wide forehand, should you go back to the same spot? Some players will jump all over it if you go there twice; others get caught moving back into position and the second one is the one that gets them.
- Keep doing this, match after match, for a long period of time. My best guess is it takes about a year of regular match play to really make this type of placement so instinctive that you almost always go to the right spot.
So . . . are you ready to POP your opponents?