One of the most important skills you can learn to develop as a tennis player is the ability to quickly size up your opponent. Without properly analyzing and assessing the playing style of your opponent, you have no solid point of reference in terms of what strategies you will need to use to gain an advantage. There may be times where you'll face off against a player you've never played before, and in those cases it's crucial to take diligent mental notes, beginning at the warm-up, regarding your opponent's tendencies. Below are some key points to look for to help you analyze your opponent's tennis playing style in real-time, so that you can adjust on the fly and maintain a competitive edge.
1. Grip - Take note of the grip style of your opponent--is it western (or semi-western), eastern, continental (not all that common today) or a hybrid? An eastern forehand grip typically produces a more flat stroke, while a western forehand grip will normally produce more topspin. Identifying your opponent's grip can give you clues as to what type of shots you might encounter.
2. Overall Playing Style - Most players can be loosely categorized into four different tennis playing styles: Serve-and-volley, aggressive baseliner, counterpuncher, or all-court player. Serve-and-volley players tend to rely heavily upon their serve, and they love to rush the net early. Aggressive baseliners tend to hang back and hit the majority of their shots from the baseline area, and will often try to deliver powerful strokes down the sideline. Counterpunchers assume more of a defensive posture by engaging in long volleys, and will often win points by simply outlasting their opponents. All-court players are the most difficult to peg, because they have very few noticeable tendencies, and are effective from the baseline as well as the net. Once you've identified which playing style your opponent tends to favor, adjust your shots to disrupt them and keep them out of their comfort zone. Remember that everyone has weaknesses; you just need to do your homework to find them.
3. Emotional Control - Does your opponent tend to get frustrated easily? If so, find out what you can do to upset them. Can they handle aggressive play, or do they get intimidated easily? Try to take note of what may trigger your opponent's emotional weaknesses, and capitalize on them wherever possible.
4. Physical Ability - Be sure to identify key areas of your opponent's physical abilities such as speed, strength, control, agility and reaction time. If they're slow, hit cross-court volleys. If they have a hard time controlling their shot on high backhands, that's where you should aim. If they don't have much stamina, go for lengthy volleys. The last thing you want to do is adopt a strategy that plays to your opponent's physical strengths.
5. Stroke Tendencies - Does your opponent favor forehands or backhands? Which strokes do they seem to make the most mistakes with in terms of execution? Take note of the quality and delivery of their topspin and slice shots, looking for clues as to how to exploit them to your advantage. For example, if you notice that your opponent tends to hit a weak, floaty slice, you can move in quickly to catch the ball at the bounce point and drive home a power shot.
6. Response to Specific Shots - During the match, try to execute an array of different shots in order to observe how your opponent responds. How do they handle short, low balls or high deep balls? How do they react to lobs and drop shots? How do they handle shots on the run? Can they respond quickly to cross-court shots? Diligently observing your opponent's responses to specific shots will help you determine what shots you can capitalize on to exploit their weaknesses.
7. Serve - How strong and accurate is your opponent with their serve? How strong is their second serve? Do they seem to be in control of their swing, or are they somewhat haphazard? Do they have predictable ball placement? Observing the finer points of your opponent's serve can give you clues as to how to position yourself for the most advantageous returns.
Remember that the ultimate goal of analyzing your opponent is to find a way to pit your strengths against his/her weaknesses. Do your best to be attentive to every small detail of your opponent's playing style, and make fast real-time adjustments to your game, all the while gauging their response. With enough practice and intentional effort, you'll soon be able to quickly and almost instinctively adjust your game in order to stay one step ahead of your opponent at all times.