One of the most under-developed skill sets for competitive tennis players is their ability to scout opponents and then build a winning plan against their opponent based on their scouting.
The ability to create a game plan from scouting opponents is an essential factor for the player to be able to go through tournament draws and achieve success, week in and week out.
A player developing a “Coaches Eye” to pick out what will be a winning formula is best started by keeping a book of observations on each opponent from previous experiences, matches and practices. The player’s book becomes a record of opponents’ tendencies and habits.
By always sizing up against potential opponents, competitive players find ways to be able to gain the win once drawn against one another.
During the initial development stages, the key is for competitive players to become comfortable in the tournament environment through exposure. Increasing exposure to the tournament environment allows the player to be less nervous, remain positive regardless of who they play against each draw.
These are the players who are able to focus in tactical details and are confident enough in their skills and tools to be able to execute plans needed for that particular round.
When you consider the importance of developing a winning formula against a certain opponent, the player begins to understand that looking too far ahead brings up too many questions and can make building a plan difficult.
The key is to building a successful plan is to understand the three main factors which affect match play:
The player’s technical skill level and the mental skill capacity within an occasion and new competitive environment (experience)
Mental state of the player, related to the occasion and the environment:
►The level of calmness, control and overall nerves/mental preparedness
►Prior performance–same opponent win/loss record; enormity of the situation or occasion. This is usually linked to the “outcome.”
►Court surface/conditions/tactical capacity determined by surface and environment.
►Big match and motivation; i.e. home crowd for or against. Big tournament vs. smaller event. This can also be the priority of this event, i.e. national event vs. a consolation event at a regional event.
►Mental strength based on the physical status of the player–early on the first day vs. very late match on the past day.
Your player’s game style and specific preferences
The other important factor is understanding the player’s game style and related factors:
►Game style match up/court surface effect of the match up; players winning plays versus the opponent’s limitations in their game.
►Opponent’s strengths and weakness, and the relationship to the court surface.
►Recent performances and results and the effect of “form”/confidence/level of support.
►Current training and match play goals and themes. Tactical capacity and conditions.
►Extraneous variables–status of outside relationships (coach, parents, peers, partners, etc.)
The opponent’s game style and specific preferences and how they match up
The Ability to match up/winning plays and point sequences/role of the surface in game style:
►Tactical awareness/prior knowledge/quality of scouting of the player.
►Win/loss ratio and the confidence associated with that.
►Physical status prior to and during the match.
►Level of risk-taking and timing of specific tactical options determined by decision-making.
Identifying game style and preferences
Another crucial factor is for our “Scouting Player” to have the ability to identify the game style and preferences of the opponent. It is important to be able to categorize the opponent into either:
►A baseline aggressive player: Well-rounded in all skills and looks to end points—an example being Dominic Thiem.
►An all-court player: Player exhibits terrific movement and is able to run quick and slow pressure tactics at will—an example being Roger Federer.
►Net rushing player: Generally very good with continental grips and up and down the court movement with usually a very good serve—an example being Feliciano Lopez.
►Variation game style: Will use all-court plus mix in variation of spin and tactic at will. Likes to match up against big hitters. Is very adaptable to all surfaces and plays doubles well, and is closely aligned to an all-court player–an example being Rafael Nadal.
►Countering player: Likes opponent to provide speed, then can use that against them. In today's fast game, this is a very dangerous opponent—an example being Daniil Medvedev.
As a coach or parent with players at a tournament or in a competitive environment, try to encourage your player to be a “complete” player. Doing the preparation work and being ready before the match is very important. Scouting may include watching by the side of the practice courts, asking friends or others that may know the player, or by doing your own online research on the player. The key aspects to address and be clear on are as follows:
►Identify the player’s game style.
►Identify the player’s strengths (technical, tactical, physical, psychological) and limiting factors.
►Identify player’s winning plays (usually very clear by seeing the patterns and connections of plays).
►Identify opponent’s strengths and ask yourself what are their limiting factors?
►Identify opponent’s winning plays, best strokes and general “go to” plays.
►Develop a game plan to counter the opponent’s strengths and winning plays—be prepared for what will come.
►Explain and clarify with the player what are the match plans, objectives and also things to be aware of. Prepare for the opponent to do the things they do well and not get caught off guard.
►Coaches and parents need to adopt communication strategies that are best suited to the needs of the player as no two players are the same.
►Select verbal communications that are clear, appropriate in terms of timing and leave no margin for misunderstanding. Be sure to adapt your style of communicating to that of which the player is most suited and used to as well as being appropriate for the setting you are in.
►Encourage the player to ask questions, to take the time to analyze practices and matches and then ask questions. Always give your player a voice which will certainly help to facilitate growth and stimulate more tennis conversations.
Conrad Singh is the Chief Operating Officer of Tennis & Director of Coaching at Centercourt Club & Sports. He has held Head Coach and Director positions in Australia, England, Japan and China, and has been involved in professional tennis player development for well over two decades. Singh came to Centercourt from Shanghai, China, where he helped to develop a top high-performance player program, which saw more than 200 athletes train under his system.