If you are going to take away one piece of squash knowledge this year – let it be this:
When you have the opportunity, anticipate your opponents next shot – Never guess.
This goes for everyone at every level of the game; whether you are are local recreational player, a good club player, or you are Mohamed ElShorbagy and Laura Massaro.
What’s the difference between anticipating and guessing I hear you ask?
To guess is to completely commit yourself to one shot and to have already taken a step that way before your opponent strikes the ball. Once you have made the move a change of direction is basically out of the question here.
To anticipate is to lean toward the shot you expect, but not to have fully committed and not to have taken a step. This allows for a change of direction if required.
If the ball does go where you expect it to then you can continue that momentum and very quickly pounce toward the ball. But – if your opponent does not hit the ball to where you expect, you can simply rock back to a central balance and swiftly change direction.
To anticipate allows for all possibilities, whereas guessing does not. Anticipation allows for attack and defence. Guessing is a desperate measure which can only be used to attack, that is if you guess correctly.
OK, but how do we anticipate? This is a real skill.
So we know the skill of anticipation is not simply guess work, so let’s look at the knowledge we must apply to every situation in order to anticipate like Ali Farag. These are the steps you must consider when you see your opponent going to the ball.
Step 1. Examine the quality of your shot.
This is the very first step and the step which I see overlooked most often, and it is not just club players who are guilty of this, but top players aswell. Most people skip to Steps 2 and 3, whereas Step 1 is the most important and the most proactive.
If your shot is a good one then it helps you to limit your opponents options. A tight shot, whether a straight drop or drive means it is very unlikely your opponent can do anything but hit straight – so lean across and look to volley your opponents loose straight drive (but remember don’t step across until; you have seen the ball leave your opponents racket!).
If yours is a good low shot which your opponent has to bend down low to retrieve, then you can expect your opponent to hit up and hopefully presenting you with a volley opportunity. If they are hitting up from the front corners the chances are they will hit cross-court, so lean that way. If they are hitting up from the back corners after you’ve hit a low drive to a good length then the chances are they will hit straight, so lean that way.
If your shot is running away from your opponent into the back corner and they have to play their shot reaching behind themselves, then the odds are they will play a boast, so lean forwards ready to pounce.
You get the idea.
Likewise, if your shot is bad or simply average, then you are not in a position to anticipate as your opponent will have several options and they could even delay their shot slightly to trick you. In this scenario (which is often during a rally to the back) then you must occupy a neutral ‘T’ position watching very carefully, and ready to respond to your opponents shot.
To anticipate is to be aggressive. You can only be aggressive if your previous shot earns you the right to be aggressive. Think in combinations of shots, not in single shots.
Step 2. Their habits.
Obviously different players have different habits / styles of play. Quickly you will begin to notice these patterns and this will help you to anticipate. If your opponent generally cross-courts from the front then there’s a opportunity to anticipate (but don’t guess!). Some opponents love to boast a lot from the back forehand, or volley drop on the backhand volley etc etc. Some players are deliberately deceptive so therefore you possibly have to watch more carefully from a neutral position more often, or until you begin to read their swing and body position.
Every shot your opponent plays make sure it is stored in your memory bank. This will help you anticipate as the match progressive as similar patters will arise over and over again.
Step 3. Their body position and swing.
Basic reading of people:
If your opponent appears to be slightly turned to the side or even the back wall more than usual then they are likely to play a boast.
If your opponent has a short swing they are likely to hit a soft drop shot.
If they have a high swing the are likely to hit low and hard.
If they have a low swing then they will hit up.
If they are forward / front wall facing then they are extremely likely to hit a cross-court.
Step 4. How you feel.
Are you fresh or are you tired? If you are fresh you can anticipate more because you know you have the energy to change direction. If you are tired then maybe a more neutral position is generally best to make it easier to cover the court.
If you sense your opponent is tired then they may begin to hit under the ball more, trying to hit up to give themselves time. This give your opportunities to volley. Always look for opportunities to volley.
Tired opponents tend to boast more too, so look out for that.
Anyway, as we can see there are lots of things to take into account, but the two vital ‘take home’ pieces of information here are:
Anticipate (not guess) whenever possible. “Whenever possible” is also an important phrase as you cannot do it all the time, which leads me on to the second more important piece of advice…
Carefully examine the quality of your shot, this is the key to accurately anticipating your opponents next shot. People don’t often do this and they just rely on reading their opponents body and racket as their number one guide. The number one guide to their shot selection and quality, is the quality of your shot!