Is anticipation a natural talent or are there ways to improve this skill? (AP)

You’ve probably heard certain players praised for having good “anticipation.” They seem to have been blessed with a sixth sense for where the next ball from their opponent is going to go. But what you probably haven’t heard is how that skill was acquired. Is it a natural talent that can’t be taught? Or are there ways to improve your own anticipation?

It might be helpful to start with a change in terminology. Instead of using the word “anticipation,” which sounds innate and unteachable, let’s focus on a more concrete concept: “recognition.” This skill—the ability to recognize, immediately, what your opponent is doing with the ball—lies at the heart of anticipation. The difference is, it’s something that all players can consciously work on.

Recognition is among the most underrated talents in tennis, but it’s essential to the success of both
aggressors and counter-punchers in the pros. Roger Federer dominates rallies because he’s laser-focused on using his strengths. If he can start a point with a serve and a forehand, he knows he can get his opponent under duress right away. In practice, Federer serves to targets that will give him the best chance at a forehand on the first shot, and in matches he’s constantly trying to recognize when a ball is coming that he can run around and crush with his favorite stroke.

Recognition is just as key for defensive-minded players like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. They’re always looking to shrink the court and give their opponents less room to hit into. They do that with their speed, but they also do it by understanding what their opponents’ tendencies are. In particular, Djokovic and Murray both do an excellent job of recognizing where the server is going with his delivery. They are experts at detecting variations in their opponents’ motions, minute as they may be, that give away which serve is coming.

How can you improve your own ability to recognize what’s heading your way sooner? Here are three simple steps you can practice:

1

Watch

During the warm-up, look to see which side your opponent takes the ball on more often, and where he or she is most comfortable hitting it. Every player is different, but the faster you get a feel for your opponent’s shot selection, the faster you’ll react.

2

Practice the one-two punch

Rather than trying to blast aces, work on using your serve as a set-up shot. Serve to each corner, and study what types of returns your various serves tend to elicit. From there, you should be able to put yourself in a better position to hit your favorite shot on the first ball.

3

Follow the ball

Doubles teams are taught to “move with the ball.” Singles players at the baseline should do it too. By following the direction of your shot, you’ll shrink the court, cut off your opponent’s angles and, once you recognize where the next ball is going, make it easier to track it down.