by Han Xiao
Whenever I’m coaching intermediate or junior players, they’ll often ask me before the match, “what do I do against [insert opponent’s name]?” My response is usually to turn the question back on them, which is to ask them what their initial game plan is. No matter if it’s someone they’ve played twenty times or someone they’ve never played before, far too often the answer is, “I don’t know.”
Although it’s fair and correct to go into matches with an open mind and to remain flexible, not having a plan going into the first game can have detrimental results. Even though many players feel each other out in the first game of a match, especially players who don’t know each other well, not having a plan can mean quickly falling behind without having gained any new information.
Creating a game plan for the first game of a match is a balancing act between playing to your strengths and finding or attacking the opponent’s weaknesses. The reason it’s a balancing act because ultimately, being reactive going into every match generally is not advantageous. You may be able to find the opponent’s weakness, but without playing to your strengths it may be difficult or impossible to take advantage. Additionally, the opponent may be able to exploit your weaknesses as well. A good example of this is if you are playing against a player who has trouble against reverse pendulum serves. However, you have a very weak reverse pendulum serve that has little spin, and you have trouble when the opponent receives your serves aggressively. If the opponent begins to flip your serve aggressively, this tactic will ultimately backfire even though it’s usually a weakness for the opponent. This is why often times it’s best to go into the first game of a match mainly playing to your strengths.
Although you want to play to your strengths, there are still ways to gain information and keep the opponent off balance. There are certain things that you can easily “script” into a first game game plan in order to gain information:
1. Serves: serves are the easiest element of your game to script because they do not depend on the opponent giving you the opportunity to execute them. Planning in general which serves you plan to use in the first game can give you information as to which serves will be effective throughout the match, which serves will not be effective and should be used sparingly, and which serves to use as a surprise. For example, planning to use at least two long fast serves in the first game to different locations, at least one serve short to the forehand, and at least one half long serve will give you a good amount of information as to how the opponent generally will react to these serves.
2. Serve return: serve returns depend somewhat on the opponent’s serves, but you can go into the first game planning to try certain serve returns given the opportunity similar to scripting serves. Trying at least one return quick and wide to the forehand, for example, will give you an idea of how quickly the opponent reacts and moves to such a return and whether the opponent is looking to step around often. It’s also important to note that in the first game, returning serve a bit more safely is preferable to taking too much risk, especially if you can’t read the spin perfectly. There is almost no information gained by missing a serve return directly, after all.
3. Changes in spin and pace: some players are very good against one type of spin or one rhythm. Plan to change the pace and spin at least a couple times in the first game. For example, if you are a looper, you can try to loop at least one or two slow, spinny loops when given the opportunity to see if the opponent has more trouble against faster loops or slow and spinny loops. Also, against intermediate players, looping a little bit high can tell you whether the opponent has trouble against a higher loop. If you are a chopper, planning to try a couple fishes along with some different spins is probably already your normal game plan, but you should try to incorporate all of it into a first game in order to gain more information.
4. Bread and butter plays: we’ll probably discuss this a lot more in a future article, but if you have any very routine and high percentage plays, it is quite effective to plan to use these at the beginning and at the end of the first game. Using them at the beginning of the first game can establish confidence and momentum and can also give you an alert if something goes terribly wrong with it. This doesn’t mean that you lose confidence in a play if you simply miss an opening attack, but if the opponent reacts in an unorthodox or unexpected way that makes it very difficult to execute, then it can save you from a nasty surprise at the end of games or at a critical point in the match. If something out of the ordinary doesn’t happen, then you can continue to use these plays, especially at the end of the first game if the game is close to try to secure the lead.
As you can probably tell, a lot of this is about having a plan to collect information and is by no means perfect. However, there are two factors that can significantly improve this process. The first is your understanding of your own game, which can help you continuously improve your first game game planning. Indeed, you may find that once you begin planning out the first game you can use the same plan for most opponents, especially new opponents that you don’t have any information on. As you find problems with your plan, you can then fix these issues to improve the game plan. The second is tailoring the plan to opponents that you already have some information on due to watching tape or having played them before. Having this information allows you to cut out some aspects of the first game game plan as well as to add some tactics specifically targeted at the opponent’s weakness. For example, if you already know that the opponent is very strong against a certain portion of your serves, you can remove those serves from your plan altogether for the first game. You can then choose to reintroduce those serves later as a surprise or avoid them for the whole match.
In conclusion, no matter what your level is, and even if you have never played the opponent before, having a plan going into the first game is essential. If nothing else, having a plan will allow you to gather information more completely and more efficiently to give you the best chance possible to win the match.