Realizing what type of shot the opponent just hit to you is a very underrated skill. The best players in the world are able to identify the shot and react to it in a split second, usually resulting in a good reply.
Since there is so little time between hits, it is extremely important to rely on habit and instinct when you return an opponent's shot. This starts with your ability to determine what type of ball you are dealing with. If the ball is hit to you extremely hard, deep or quite a distance away from where you are, your idea should be to get in position with the racquet ready as soon as possible, and try to use your regular swing. It is a good idea to hit this type of ball more towards the middle of the court in case you are not able to control it, due to the difficulty of the shot. Again, the first part is identifying that this will not be easy, and reacting immediately by preparing. On the other hand, if you determine that a shot is not hit well, you have plenty of time, and you have several options related to how you can hit the shot back, try to be decisive and use a shot that you feel confident about.
As far as the actual recognition of the shot is concerned, listen to your opponents contact (was it a solid hit?), watch the ball come off of their racquet to figure out the direction, and immediately determine if it is a forehand or backhand. The best players react quickly, but do not overreact. If you can stay calm while preparing to hit the ball, your result is more likely to be positive and your opponent will be forced to go through the shot recognition process very quickly. Remind yourself to use your habits (ready position, shoulder turn, and quick first step) to help give yourself more time to evaluate the shot you are tracking.
Use your shot recognition to improve your ability to reply to the difficult shots, the easy shots, and the normal shots that you are faced with in a match.
Steve Annacone, USPTA Elite Pro, is the Director of Annacone Tennis, www.annaconetennis.com and MyHamptonsPro, www.myhamptonspro.com in East Hampton, NY . Steve is also a tennis professional at Ventana Golf and Country Club in Tucson, AZ. In addition, Steve and Miguel Coelho have introduced the JET (Junior Elite Tennis) program at the Tucson Jewish Community Center for high level players ages 8-18. Please contact Steve at email@example.com