(By Larry Hodges)
Tip of the week: Tactical Thinking Between Points
Everyone has their own tactical thinking ritual . . . or doesn’t have one. If you don’t, you should.
What is a tactical thinking ritual? It’s when you habitually think tactically about the next point. Different players have different rituals, but most are similar. Here are mine. Note that tactical thinking during a match should be kept simple. There are zillions of possible tactics, but your job is to find a few that work in the given match.
- When I have two serves coming up. This is probably where you should do the most tactical thinking, since you have complete control over what serves you will use. Before I come to the table I’m thinking about both serves. My main thinking is whether I want to serve both short, both long, one of each, or whether I want to throw in a “trick” serve, such as fast no-spin to the middle, or a fast down-the-line. I have to decide if I want to serve to increase the probability I’ll get a specific receive – such as a long push to loop, a topspin receive I can loop aggressively against, or a ball I can smash or loop kill. I also have to decide the placement of the serves, and the order. For example, if I decide the receiver is ready for my deep serves and I choose to serve both short, I might go for a very heavy backspin serve to the middle (to take away the extreme angles on the return), where I might be anticipating a push return I can loop, followed by a no-spin serve, where I’m hoping the receiver will push it like the previous backspin serve, and so pop it up or return it with less backspin. I might serve the second one to the same spot as I want the serve to look as much as possible like the previous one so the receiver will push it the same, thereby popping it up.
- When I have one serve coming up. Here is where I evaluate my previous plan based on what happened on the first serve. For example, using the example above, suppose the receiver backhand banana flipped my heavy backspin serve. I now have to make a judgment – should I serve short no-spin, hoping he misreads it, and risking another backhand attack? Or perhaps I should instead serve it short to the forehand? Or, since he’s reaching over the table to attack with his backhand, perhaps a big, breaking sidespin serve deep to his backhand? Suppose the receiver pushed my heavy backspin serve into the net. Then maybe following up with a no-spin serve might not work, since he’s already aiming a bit down? Or suppose he quick-pushed my backspin serve really wide, deep, and aggressively, so I had a difficult ball to attack, and think he might be able to do that as well to my no-spin serve? Then I might consider serving sidespin-topspin to get into a different type of rally.
- When I’m receiving. Here you can’t have a firm plan since you don’t know what serve you will get. However, you should always have at least two possible receives off any serve (preferably more), and before each receive, should decide which ones you should favor off the serves you expect to see. (But don’t over-think this or you might freeze up.) For example, against a short backspin serve to the middle, I can push long or short, or flip, and I can do these to all parts of the table. Before the receive, I will decide if I’m going to be aggressive or not, and which side I should receive to. But these have to be flexible decisions. I may decide to push long to the backhand, but if the server looks like he’s setting up for that shot, leaving his wide forehand open, I might change at the last second and quick-push there. Or the serve might pop up or be easy to read, in which case I might switch to an attack. If my opponent is consistently serving long to my backhand, I might decide in advance whether I’m going to receive backhand or do a step-around and forehand loop. (Note that you should also take into consideration what happened in the previous points when deciding what receive to use. For example, if you keep pushing long and the server keeps looping successfully, it’s time to rethink your receive.)
- When I’m serving at in a deuce game. Now’s the time to think over what worked and didn’t work up to this point, especially recently. There should be 2-3 serving options that are the obvious ones to choose from – if you don’t immediately know which ones you should be choosing from, you need to make it a habit to think about these things more as by this time you should have a very good idea what worked and what didn’t. My first thought is always whether I should go for a “trick” serve to catch the receiver off guard, or a pure third-ball serve. It all depends on the opponent and his history that match, as well as my own confidence level in my own shots. If I’m playing really well, why risk, say, a tricky deep serve that might get looped, taking my own shots out of play? In most cases, think what serve will set you up to do what you do best, usually some sort of attack. But if there’s a serve that’s been giving the receiver fits, use it, even if the receiver has a good idea it’s coming. You don’t want to lose a match and have the opponent say, “Thank God you didn’t use that serve I was having fits with!”
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