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Players of all levels can significantly accelerate the learning curve by training specifically to improve anticipation skills. Just by working on principles discussed so far in this chapter you naturally will improve your anticipation skills. To accelerate the learning curve even more, here are a few helpful training tips on how to specifically improve anticipation.

In 2014, I was coaching Genie Bouchard at all the major WTA tour events. She had reached the semifinals of the Australian Open (losing to the eventual champion Li Na), the semifinals at the French Open (losing to eventual champion Maria Sharapova), and she had reached the semifinals of Wimbledon playing against Simona Halep. I understood Halep’s game extremely well, but I was determined to leave no stone unturned to make sure that Genie was as well prepared as possible to get to her first Grand Slam final.

That year for the first time, Wimbledon provided a wonderful feature for players and coaches to be able to watch replays of any match played in the tournament. In addition to this, we were able to break the match down into categories in order to view specific shots—backhand winners, aces, unforced errors, etc. It was an amazing opportunity to scout opponents and/or evaluate how a player was performing. So, every day in the early mornings, before the crowds were allowed in, I would go to the All England Club—the site of the Championships—and sit in the player area’s computer room to watch all of Genie’s matches to evaluate her play. And even more importantly, I would watch each of her opponent’s previous matches to pick out any potential tactical weaknesses, patterns, and tendencies that might prove to give Genie a slight edge. Although I was already very familiar with Halep’s game, I was able to glean valuable information from watching video footage. After watching every first serve Halep had hit in the previous four matches, I noticed that she was struggling with getting her serve out wide in the ad court. In fact, she had only made a total of four effective wide serves in the ad court in all four previous matches. Conversely, she was serving great with the slice up the tee.  Armed with this invaluable scouting/empirical data, I was able to advise Genie (it took some convincing) to adjust her return of serve position and stand two feet over toward the middle of the court. This would effectively give Halep the wide serve in the ad court, BUT it would take away her favorite serve up the T. This small but critically important tactical adjustment—based on scouting, empirical data, and visual data—proved to be incredibly effective. Genie frustrated Simona by consistently returning her favorite and best serves up the tee, forcing her to frequently and unsuccessfully attempt the wide serve to Genie’s backhand. This contributed to Genie breaking serve three times in two sets and was without a doubt an important component to Genie beating Simona and reaching the Wimbledon finals!

COACH TIP: Understanding spin is particularly important for young players even at the earliest stages of development, in order to help their anticipation and overall ball striking skills. Take the opportunity to explain a particular type of spin to your student, let’s say extreme backspin. Tell them that the ball will almost stop when it hits the court. Be sure to explain to them how their opponent would have to have an “open racquet face” to generate this type of spin.  Giving them this advance notice helps them to anticipate what will happen. Then proceed to hit multiple shots with the backspin and see how quickly your student begins to recognize what the ball will do when it lands. It’s amazing to see how quickly they begin to adjust and calculate how the backspin will affect the bounce of the ball. Do this with topspin and side spin too, always giving the player advance information on cues from the stroke and what effect it will have on the ball.

At first, simplify the process by practicing at relatively slow speeds and looking for simple cues which are discussed in advance. In the passing shot scenario above, you can hit an approach shot and come in at half speed, and your coach will give you obvious cues to look for. An example would be to recognize when your coach is going to hit a two-handed backhand drive or a one-handed slice. This should be relatively easy due to the significant difference in the racquet preparation.  In these scenarios, you can be consciously thinking about what your opponent is doing, which allows you to good know what you’re looking for in order to anticipate. After 10 minutes of this type of drill, shift your focus away from thinking about what your opponent is doing and where, and change your focus to when impact is made. Take your split step, and let your thoughts flow subconsciously. The brain will naturally process the information and you’ll find that you are effectively eliminating options that your opponent doesn’t have, while becoming acutely aware of—or anticipating—the most probable options.

Here’s another example, this time on the serve. Have your partner mix up his serves while you consciously look for cues in his stroke (for example, a toss back over his head means a kick serve, a toss to the side means a slice). After doing this for a while, shift your focus to when contact is made. Start your split step right before your opponent contacts the ball, and let your subconscious take over. Once your brain understands and recognizes the cues, it will automatically use this information to help you anticipate where and how he is going to serve.

COACH TIP: The Human Visual System

In order to gain a greater depth of understanding of anticipation, it is extremely beneficial to understand some basic principles about the human visual system, what it is capable of, some of its limitations, and how it performs at an optimum level in the athletic arena, specifically in the sport of tennis. Some of the following information may be helpful:

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