by Han Xiao
At all levels of play, misdirection is a good way to win points, especially when you don’t want to play an extremely risky shot. It can be effective on the attack, on the counterattack, as well as on the serve and service receive. Here are some tips to make using misdirection an effective part of your game.
- All misdirection works the same way fundamentally, which is the threat that you will do something that you end up not doing. For example, if you threaten to hit the ball to the open court, the opponent may take a small step in that direction in anticipation, while you change the direction of your shot at the last second and hit the ball behind them. This principle applies to all misdirection shots; the threat that you are going to do something is the main reason why the misdirection succeeds, not necessarily the quality of the shot you hit alone. If the opponent reacts easily to your misdirection without hesitating or losing their balance, chances are they have called your bluff and you need to establish a credible threat before attempting to use your misdirection play again.
- The simplest way to utilize misdirection is to use your wrist at the last second before contact in order to change the direction of the ball. For example, if you are about to forehand push or flip, hold your racket still in a noncommittal position until right before ball contact, then change your wrist angle to put the ball wide to the opponent’s backhand, for example. You can do the same thing on the backhand side, but the motion is more subtle. This is used quite a bit on service returns, since it requires minimal movement, is subtle, and can be integrated easily into your existing serve return techniques.
- A very strong misdirection play is when you have the opportunity to attack or counterattack with the forehand to the open court. At this point, you can finish the stroke mainly with the body while letting your arm lag slightly behind its normal position, causing the ball to travel back to where the opponent was standing previously. If the opponent takes the threat of you playing to the open court seriously, then they will take one or more small steps toward the open court to cover the angle, and you will end up hitting the ball behind them, either putting them off balance or winning the point outright. Sometimes, you need to attack the open court to keep the threat of attacking to the open court credible, preferably with the same timing as your misdirection shot. Hitting the ball slightly later than usual can be useful in this situation, since it gives your opponent more time to panic and make a false step. Try to use your body as much as possible like a normal forehand attack and not to lead with the shoulder, as this can give away the fact that you are trying to misdirect the opponent.
- A variation of number 3 is to attack slower than expected and attack the ball into your opponent’s body or elbow. This is even more effective than usual when your opponent is scrambling since they will not be able to change direction very easily to adjust to the ball. Again, the key is having the threat of attacking to the open court and timing the ball contact well. The best ball contact is just after the top of the bounce, when the opponent has probably begun to anticipate where you are going with the ball, but not so late that the threat of a winner to the open court no longer exists. Again, you want to make sure that your stronger, more direct shots have similar timing as this misdirection play so that you don’t telegraph your intent.
- The backhand can also be used for misdirection plays, but it can be difficult to master and very subtle. Most backhand misdirections are variations of 1, where you use your wrist to change direction at the last minute to switch the ball wide to the opponent’s forehand. This is very effective against players trying to step around the corner to hit a forehand from the backhand side, as you can make them believe you are going crosscourt before changing direction at the last second. A small head fake can make this performance even more convincing, so that they think you are about to make contact and move early while you are still measuring your options. The threat of a backhand to the opponent’s backhand almost always exists, so this is less about threatening to hit a winner and more about getting the opponent to gamble and then punishing them for doing it. You only need to worry about overusing this misdirection play, such as using it too often on service returns to the point where the opponent stops attempting to step around and waits for you to attempt this play.
- One more misdirection play I’ll mention is threatening to push or drop shot, and then changing to a more aggressive, deeper return, whether that’s a flip or a deep push of some sort. The most basic version of this is approaching the ball as if you are going to push, then flipping your racket at the last second to flip the ball. This is a very fluid, natural motion for many players. More advanced versions of this misdirection involve using the wrist at the last second to slide the ball deep with sidespin, or reversing the misdirection to fake a deep push or flip and changing to a drop shot at the last second. These are techniques that take a lot of practice and require the threat of being able to execute many serve return techniques and placements. For example, if you cannot reliably drop shot the opponent’s serve, faking a drop shot and sliding the ball deep will likely be ineffective and be met with a strong opening attack.
- Most of all, be creative with how you use misdirection and realize that most misdirection plays end up being a combination of some of the things we’ve discussed. Be very aware of how effective your misdirection plays are and observe how the opponent reacts to them. If they are not effective against a certain opponent, think about why the opponent is not respecting the threat that you’re attempting to use to put them off balance, and try to change that in order to set up your misdirection plays for later in the match.
Overall, misdirection plays can be a very safe and very effective way to gain advantages in points if executed well. When used in conjunction with more standard plays, they can easily put even high level opponents off balance and give you the initiative for the rest of the point even if they don’t result in an outright winner. To see some misdirection plays in action, I encourage you to watch this match between Wang Liqin and Ryu Seung Min, specifically to see how Wang Liqin combines his trademark power with some misdirection plays to keep his opponent honest. It is definitely a planned tactic against Ryu, who is a one-winged penhold looper, and keeps Ryu from using his forehand to attack and counterattack as much as he would like. See if you can identify some of the types of misdirection we’ve highlighted and try to emulate them in your own play.