As coaches, we often talk about players being smart. But what does that mean? Is it that they are creative or crafty? Is it that they make disciplined decisions? Or is it that they know their game and their opponent’s? Of course, it’s all of the above. Ultimately, there are three things that can influence every decision a player makes – whether during a point, in between points, or before the match starts. They are:
Most players have a good understanding of one or maybe two, but lack an awareness of the others. Smart players, on the other hand, will take all three into account when making their decisions.
Knowing yourself and your game is key. But it’s more complex than it sounds – a player’s self-awareness can affect their pre-match planning, but also their decisions during the point. Before the match, players clearly have to know their gamestyle and preferred tactics, but also their strengths and weaknesses. And “backhand” is not enough – strengths and weaknesses should be situational (eg. “defensive backhand”) and usually linked to a particular pattern (eg. “I like to use my forehand after serving wide”).
During the match, players need to be aware of how they are executing in the moment. What is working? What isn’t? If it’s not working – why? As Mike Tyson famously suggested, you have to be able to adjust your plan to the realities of competition. If a player is feeling uncertain, they should also know what patterns they can execute to build up their confidence.
Lastly, during the point, players need to be able to make smart decisions based on their set-up – the shot I choose to hit when I’m stretching and off balance should differ from the one I choose to hit when I'm set up and ready to drive the ball.
Ball-based decision-making is often the first type of tactical coaching younger players receive, but that doesn’t mean that it’s simple. At any given moment during the point, players must assess the height, spin, direction (not just the placement but also the incoming angle), depth, and speed of the ball in order to make a decision.
Take, for example, a player who receives a ball in the corner of the court. If it’s a bit shorter, the player might be able to angle it off. Deeper, and that option is no longer available. If it’s lower, they’ll have to spin it more, whereas if it’s higher, they can flatten it out – unless, of course, the ball is deeper. If the ball’s coming down the line, either direction is available, whereas if the ball is coming crosscourt, it will be harder to change direction – unless the ball is slow enough. You get the point. While we often teach decision-making as a set of simple black and white decisions – if you’re outside the singles line, go crosscourt; inside the singles line, go down the line – the reality is that they are all shades of grey.
This is not semantics – this is a valuable distinction for two reasons. For one, emphasizing these nuances with players can help eliminate a number of unforced errors or weak shots every match. The average 6 - 4 set is won with a differential of roughly six points. In other words, every point counts. Second, in being taught these nuanced decisions, players are exposed to the complexity of the game. You can’t teach a player that they could loop a high deep ball but drive a shorter one if they aren’t able to hit a loop or a drive. In learning these distinctions, players gain a greater understanding of the game while also practicing new skills.
Understanding the opponent is similar to, but arguably harder than, understanding yourself. Of course, players must be able to recognize their opponent’s gamestyle, strengths, and weaknesses. But they should also be able to recognize their tendencies, as this will allow them to anticipate. What do they like to do? Are they predictable? What do they never do? These are all questions that can provide important insights on an opponent. On the flip side of the coin, the best players also have an awareness of what their opponent is expecting – hence the element of surprise and creativity. If I sense that my opponent is starting to leave a little early because he knows I like to serve wide, I’ll start to serve T just to keep him guessing.
Players should also be aware of how their opponent is playing in the moment and adjust accordingly. What are they struggling with today? What can I exploit? What should I avoid right now? And don’t forget: what’s their confidence like? If my opponent shouts “I can’t hit a backhand right now!” should I start playing to their backhand more? It’s certainly an option.
During the point, technical anticipation – being able to predict what the opponent will or will not do based on their set up, balance, hip position, court position, and more – is especially important. A head start of even a fraction of a second can be the difference between making the volley and getting passed, or between attacking a short ball and letting it drop.
Hopefully it’s clear that broken into parts, there is much more to smart tennis than just “knowing your game,” or having a good “Tennis IQ.” Smart tennis is about the decisions you make before and during the match, as well as during the point. Smart tennis is about how you adjust to yourself, the ball, and the opponent. This is not to say that each and every element should be taught and drilled into players. Will some be instinctive? Absolutely. Will every single one be necessary? Absolutely not. But a thorough analysis of almost any player will reveal areas of possible growth – areas where, if certain decisions were made differently, more points could be won. To ignore this and pretend that smart tennis is simply a question of instinct is foolish. Smart tennis is about playing both sides of the ball, and it can be taught.