How to Develop Better Anticipation and Decision Making Skills for Tennis

Federer returning serve


When playing a match, something that can give you an advantage over your opponent is how well you can anticipate their shots.

How soon can you tell where your opponent’s shot is going? Is it when they make contact with the ball? Slightly before? Maybe when the ball is well on its way toward you?

The sooner you know where the ball is going, the better. Top players can usually anticipate where the ball is going before their opponent has even made contact with the ball.

Before that, they generally already have a good idea of what their opponent’s best options are in that situation due to how they are setting up and what shot they hit previously in the same or similar situation.

The sooner they can position themselves for what is heading their way, the more chance they have of hitting back a good shot and gaining control of the point or putting pressure on their opponent.

So how can you get better at anticipating your opponent’s shots?

Look for cues

Players will often signal what they are going to do before they do it. For example, they may position their body differently depending on if they are aiming the ball cross-court or down the line.

I have seen many club level (and higher) players setup with an open stance for their forehand cross-court shots, then setting up with a neutral or closed stance for their down the line shots.

Or they will take a bigger backswing when hitting a more aggressive shot and not take it back at all if they are attempting to do a dropshot.

In his autobiography, “Open”, Andre Agassi tells a (now famous) story about how he figured out how to read Boris Becker’s serve. Becker was known for having a booming first serve that was difficult to return.

But Agassi figured out that before he served, Becker would stick his tongue out a certain way when aiming wide, and a different way when aiming down the center.

Knowing this, he could break Becker’s serve whenever he wanted to. It gave Agassi a huge advantage.

Better, more experienced players will generally disguise their shots well, making it very difficult for their opponent to read. But the cues are still there, albeit harder to see.

Practice being aware of how your opponent is setting up to hit a ball and also how they make contact. Keep your eye on the ball, but be aware of your opponent’s movements.

Try to see if there are any differences in how they position themselves when hitting crosscourt compared with down the line, or when they hit the ball short or deep. Look at where they place the ball on their ball toss during the serve.

On the flip side, the better you can disguise your shots, the more effective they can be. This is especially useful when changing direction i.e. when looking for the right opportunity to hit a down the line shot after being in a cross-court rally.

Look for patterns

Early in the match, see if you can figure out which direction your opponent likes to hit their forehand and backhand to.

Pay attention to how and where they hit their forehand passing shots. Where and how do they hit their backhand when it’s under pressure? Where do they hit the shot when they get a short ball? Where do they serve when it’s 30-30? Where do they serve their second serve when it’s your advantage?

Once you start getting an idea of what shots they like to hit in certain situations, and which shots they avoid, you can use that to your advantage.

Look at body language

Is your opponent feeling tired? Maybe they are getting upset? Are they nervous?

This can all affect how your opponent thinks and behaves. If you can tell what they are thinking, and how they are feeling, you will have a better idea of what choices they might make.

Being tired or angry can affect a player’s behavior and shot selection in a predictable way. For example, if a player is tired, they generally want to finish points off quickly. Keep them out there longer in each point and they will start taking unnecessary risks.

Being nervous can make a player mess up a shot they normally wouldn’t. It can also make them hesitant to take a risk and they end up playing very defensively.

Some players are very good at controlling their body language and hiding their emotions. Look at Nadal when he is playing: at no stage of the match, regardless of how long he is playing, can you tell if he is winning or losing. Every point he plays, he plays with the same intensity and he never lets his emotions take control.

But one way you can get an idea of how your opponent feels is by looking at the choices they make with their shots, compared to the choices they made earlier in the match.

If they are taking a lot of risk with their shots, they could be getting tired or impatient. If they are playing more defensively, they are nervous.

You can generally get a good idea of how they feel out there this way. Use that to your advantage.

Decision Making

OK, so you know now how to read your opponent’s shots. How does this help you with your decision making?

You might think that being able to anticipate your opponent’s shots is all you need to do and that you can win every match with that knowledge.

But it’s not that simple or easy.

In the example I mentioned earlier, where Agassi could tell where Becker would serve each of his serves,  Agassi also knew that he couldn’t just abuse that knowledge and get all of Becker’s serves back easily because Becker would catch on that there was something going on and possibly figure out Agassi’s method and then fix it. This would make things a lot more difficult when facing Becker’s serve.

So, Agassi would return serve as normal, and only use his method of reading Becker’s serve when he needed it most: for example, on game points or at deuce.

Because Agassi was clever about it, Becker never caught on that he was doing something that allowed Agassi to read his serve so well. Agassi managed to keep using this major advantage in all of their remaining matches and he won the vast majority of them.

So if you find a way to read your opponent’s best shot, or you figure out how to take advantage of a weakness they may have, it could be wiser to do this on the points you need to win the most and not all the time, just in case they change their tactics or start disguising their shots better.

I played a match against an opponent who had a singles ATP ranking of around 200 in the world at the time and I figured out pretty quickly that he didn’t like it when I would hit high and deep (topspin) to his backhand, followed by low and short to his forehand.

I won the first set 6-2.

Early in the second set, my strategy stopped working so well and he was anticipating my shots.

So, I reversed it: I started going deep to his forehand, followed by short and low to his backhand. Sometimes I’d play the original strategy and sometimes the reverse. As simple as this strategy sounds, especially against a player ranked that high, it still worked extremely well.

I won the second set, and the match, 6-3.

Test out your opponent

If you don’t come to the net, you won’t know how your opponent will react in that situation.

If you don’t hit a drop-shot, you won’t know how quickly your opponent will react and how fast he will run to get the ball. Or whether he will even react at all.

Use the first few games in a match to test out what your opponent will do in various situations. See how he reacts to high balls, low balls, different spins, what do they do when you come to the net, how do they react to a body serve, what happens if you just keep the ball in play, etc.

Seeing what choices your opponent makes when you put them into different situations will give you a better idea of what to expect and what options you have later in the match if things get tight.

Make your decisions, and overall tactics for the match, based on what you find out from your opponent’s reactions under those different situations early in the match.

What decisions can you make? Depends what you find out.

If you come to the net and your opponent consistently tries to pass you cross-court, be more alert about covering that side of the court (even though you still should make their down-the-line opening the first priority).

If they constantly mess up low and short forehands, get them to hit those low and short forehands whenever you can.

If they push back a short ball when you hit high and deep to their backhand, be ready to step in and take that next shot early (and aggressively) whenever you hit it high and deep to their backhand.

If they have a big forehand that is their main weapon, see if you can break it down by running for every forehand they hit and do your best to at least get it back in the court. Don’t let them hit a winner with it.

If you can do these simple things well, you will be a better player.