Friday, January 22, 2010

Deconstructing your opponent

Before getting to the main point of this article, I first want to take a minute give Nadia Petrova her due. I intensely dislike it when a top player loses a match and commentators make a bigger deal about the loser than the winner. For example, the ESPN talking heads, as well most newsprint and blogs practically ignored Petrova’s stellar performance, in favor of holding a wake over Clijsters’ loss yesterday in Melbourne. 

Don’t get me wrong, I get that a big gun losing a match may be a huge deal. But that was only a part of the story. The other part was that Petrova won. And unless the loser was hobbled by injuries and swathed in bandages, the winner really should get most of the recognition. Indeed, I found the news coverage of this event to be somewhat offensive to Ms. Petrova who seemed to have prepared perfectly for her opponent, and had an effective response for every shot in the Clijsters armory. And Clijsters herself clearly had no Plan B, or was so completely shut out of the match, she couldn't use it. That too is part of the story.

But the main focus of this entry is on the importance of players developing the ability to deconstruct an opponent’s game and attack her weaknesses. This is a critical skill in tennis. Some players hire scouts to look at the matches of their opponents to help them figure out an effective game plan in advance. But the better players also do their own analysis while the match is in progress, and then make adjustments in their own game to help them win.

It can be frustrating to watch a match where you the viewer has figured out a player's vulnerability, but her opponent apparently remains clueless. I remember years ago watching a match between Anna Kournikova and the Canadian, Vanessa Webb. At the time, Webb had no backhand. I mean she had zero ability to hit anything other than a clumsy backhand chop return. A better player would have deduced this within minutes and would have pummeled the opponent’s backhand for the rest of the match. Anna never did. It was pitiful to watch.

One of the factors that makes the greatest players great is their ability to deconstruct their opponent’s game plan, and then make adjustments in their own game to deflate the other’s effectiveness. Pete Sampras is one of the greatest ever because of his ability to analyze his opponent and then make his move. Sampras was so brilliant at this that he made it look simple.

Indeed this is one of the elements I forgot to mention in my recent criticism of Maria Sharapova and the ill-advised Nike investment (which the rest of us plebs will probably end up paying for by way of overpriced sneakers, hats, and whatnot). In my opinion, Sharapova often seems to have no interest in studying her opponent’s game plan. Instead, she seems to go emotionally inwards and remains focused on playing her own screaming power game, regardless of what is happening on the other side of the court. Against lesser players, she gets away with this.

And while the ability to remain emotionally centered is also a critical skill in tennis, so too is the knack of perceiving what your opponent is up to, figuring out what her strategies are, and coming up with new and effective responses to her game plan. I believe that this is why Sharapova relies so often on the courtside assistance of her coach who acts as a kind of scout, doing the analysis for her and telling her how to adjust her game when facing better opponents. I personally find that to be beyond pitiful.

Petrova on the other hand seemed to come to the match against Clijsters with an apparently rehearsed blueprint of her opponent's favorite (and dare I say, predictable) tennis moves. I say this because Petrova took such immediate and decisive control of the match. She responded effectively to Clijsters’ every parry, such that the latter often ended up flat-footed, out-played. And the more flummoxed her opponent became, the better Petrova played. I guess she must have learned something from all of those previous losses!

If Clijsters had the ability to change to a Plan B, she may have emerged victorious. The great ones can always figure out a Plan B. We saw this in the first round match between Federer and Andreev. It took Federer the first set to figure out Andreev‘s game-plan. And then he made adjustments, e.g., going for the forehand down-the-line. This was also evident in the match between Henin and Kleybanova. It was fascinating to watch as Henin changed up her game to respond to Kleybanova’s lethal and unexpected attacks to the Henin backhand. Nadal too changed up his game after losing the third set to Kohlschreiber. And Serena makes studying her opponents a personal mission. 

But because this ability to deconstruct an opponent is apparently so lacking among many players on the WTA, the powers-that-be decided to allow courtside coaching. Which really is nothing more than a form of Special Ed for Dummies.


Karen said...

Special Ed for Dummies - LMAO - more later

Anonymous said...

Great post tennis chick! I tell some of those commentators surely knows how to ruin a good moment. Petrova played mistake free tennis without having to do anything extra. Kim Clijsters was truly out played. I do feel that in order to be successful you have to know how to adjust your game and study your opponent. Find out their weakness and attack. Great job tennis chick! :)

tennischick said...

thank you! :-)

evgapo said...

The ability to deconstruct the opponent’s game (and some other basic abilities) is based on the ability to think and to think fast. Sometimes so fast that you have a fraction of a second for it. The thinking is a skill that may be developed and is different than ‘intelligence’ or ‘cleverness’. Eduard de Bono has invented a whole science about thinking skills and how to develop them.

My point is that some players lack the ability to think. Therefore they can’t destruct the opponent’s game. And this has nothing to do with their ‘cleverness’ or ‘intelligence’. The problem simply starts when for too long periods the players spend their time only training instead of adding some ‘thinking’ practice: simple writing, basic math, creative thinking. Go back to school? Not necessarily but still learn how to think by other similar means that will not destruct the training process.

Sampras simply knew how to think. But, you know, eeeh, Sharapova you know, is eeeeh speaking, you know, and aaaa you know what I mean.

Kim said...

Your points are well-taken not just in the pro game but for all tennis players. I think Martina Navratilova once said (commenting on some match) you have to have a Plan B, C, D and E. I think about that all of the time when I'm playing or getting ready to play.

tennischick said...

belated thanks for your comments. lol @ evgapo. eeeeeeh and aaaaah. lol.

agree on the notion of plans and back-up plans. it's always amazing to me how many players seem to go out there with no plan whatsoever.

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