Thursday, December 12, 2013

I Think I'm Gonna Feint

Well, if you are about to feint, please don't let anyone else know. This defeats the whole purpose.

I have written this article with not one intent, but with a realization: At some point in many a club, league and/or tournament player's career (life), they no longer wish to improve the execution of their strokes, physical preparedness or their technical performance of the game. I get it. What happens on the court, particularly in doubles play, becomes pretty challenging - strategy and gamesmanship become paramount. 

Feinting (faking, if you will, without the drama) is implying (physically by posture or motion) you are about to do something you are not about to do, or maybe not.

Every sport has its athletes who are good at it when needed or advantageous - a running back breaking through the line, a basketball player driving to the basket through a crowded lane, a lone soccer player approaching goal with only one opponent and the goalie at defense.

Feinting is part art, part science.

From my experience, most feinting, except for a quick change-up to an otherwise obvious stroke or placement, occurs at the net and almost always in doubles play, while awaiting an opponent's return or anticipating the opportunity to poach.

Feinting Purposes:
  • Giving your opponent a little extra something to think about prior to shot selection and targeting (placement).
  • Reducing the size of your opponent's window of return.
  • Influencing your opponent to over-compensate or under-compensate, in order to create an error or poor shot execution/placement.
  • Drawing (making attractive) your opponent to another shot avenue by creating a void, whereas you are prepared to cover the area you (presumably) left vacant, creating the opportunity to capitalize and hopefully put away the point.
Firstly, effective feinting requires situational (match) awareness and either knowing your opponent or having learned his or her preferences or weaknesses during match play.

Secondly, it requires good timing and delivery (believability).

The best feinters:
  • Are always prepared to recover and resume play if the feint has no affect.
  • Either use feinting selectively or space it out over match play, doing so for maximum believability and affect.
  • Don't use this as an outright ploy to overtly distract their opponents to the point of being discourteous or warranting a point penalty.
  • Don't always wait until the match is in jeopardy to do so.
Feints are subtle and not even the best always get it right and the results are not always as planned, but if done properly, nothing is lost, or rather, shouldn't be lost.

As a feinter, one must be prepared to recover and play the ball (the point) if the feint has no effect, or the feinter (and/or partner) must be thinking one stroke ahead if the feint works, ready to react and capitalize. If effective, the feint should at least make life difficult across the net or jeopardize the opponent's chance of winning the point. If not, future similar attempts at feinting may have little or no impact. But, then again, it may take its toll in one's opponent's decision making and shot selection. 

Effective feinting:
  • Performed only if your opponent can directly see you or peripherally has a sense of your movement or position. More later on sight gap deception.
  • Not presenting a high percentage opportunity to an opponent, unless you have the speed and ability to cover the result - drawing.
  • Preparing your body with the proper stance, muscle and mental preparedness, and ability to recover and resume play with good preparedness and positioning.
  • Knowing your partner's ability to cover the results.
  • In the case of the draw, adequately covering the results to provide a difficult shot to your opponents or to win the point.
Feinting errors:
  • Leaning and turning your upper body toward the area you wish to threaten without making the lower body adjustments to cover the more-open space you are potentially creating. In other words, don't lean and turn toward center line from waist and above without having a stance, ready to push off the balls of the foot closest to center line to cover the void you just created.
  • Directing your racket head toward the area you are feinting toward - racket recovery to a ready position or to cover a shot takes more time than most can make up for at-net.
  • A feint is not a poach. Some players continue on, regardless of the effect of a feint, to attempt a poach. There's no rhythm in this and will most likely throw off your partner. If a feint allows you to poach, then so be it, but I hope it doesn't leave you and your partner in the same 25% or 33% of the court - you'd better put away a winner. The best feint brings the ball nearer to you or your partner, creates an error on behalf of your opponent or sets up a put away for you and your partner.
  • Not being subtle in movement. Not all feints are noticed at first attempt. In fact, if a feint is not obviously noticed or reacted to by your opponent, this may tell you what you need to take it one step further and attack his or her return.
The Draw
The draw is the act of tempting your opponent to take a shot at a place across the net or toward an area of the court which he or she assumes you are leaving open. The key is you learning your opponent's preferences, their shot risk level and your own ability to quickly cover their shot and make life more difficult or place a winner.
The best example I know is making the down-the-alley shot more available or attractive, particularly after covering center court so well during previous points.
If you have done so, your opponent will be more than likely to look for the opportunity to take it down the line. If you have been paying attention, you were prepared to cover this all the while, being mentally and stance-wise prepared to handle this opportunity.
Sight Gap Deception
This is simply taking the opportunity to change your position on court during a time when your opponent (receiver) must focus on the ball and either lose you in his or her peripheral vision or basically does so due to the focus on the ball needed such as in an acute angle wide shot or during a well-paced first serve. It's all relative to your opponent's ability. 
An Example:
I was playing a tournament with a friend I knew well (and his game), but we had not played together that often. We made it to the finals. My partner was a great finesse player with a lot of slice in his game and he knows how to wear down an opponent. I love that - a little old school and a sharp mental edge. You would hardly know if you were beating this guy, which has hurt a few of his opponents in the long run.
Both of our opponents had considerable pace on their serves. While one had lesser pace than the other and quite good placement, the other's serve was extremely fast, with one heck of a kick to it, and almost all were body shots. This was killing my partner (although they had no clue, except for the results), but I knew it. I also knew I couldn't afford to sit back so deep and wait to handle his serves because the server's partner was quite adept at covering the net.
I began positioning myself from a few feet behind the baseline to squarely on the baseline. He had this extremely pronounced and long service toss (no Roddick here) and I took this time to come in about three additional feet taking a stance a few steps left as if I knew the perfect ball was coming for ripping a forehand.
I would do this for about two returns and then not for the next. We were getting annihilated early, which is the best time to modify one's game - not too late. I didn't win every return, but we were back in the match.
The server finally caught on and when he did, I began to position myself in as I had, but now I did so before his toss, whereas he could see my position. Occasionally I would drop back a few feet during his toss. This was perhaps more effective than previous feints as he began to try to place the ball too deep in the service box or went wide trying to go down the center line
Oh yes, there was much more to the match, great points played, and we were totally out-matched, but we took it to three sets and only lost by two games rather than the early destiny we had anticipated of walking off the court after the first set.
The Sleeper
This is just fun and may be the only reason I have ever done it. The sleeper is done while at net during your team's serve and although it is just to mix things up, it may get under your opponent's skin for a while if they take themselves too serious.
You position yourself just as you normally would at net, not positioning your racquet in the ready position, looking (not acting) like you are preoccupied. No, you don't turn away from the net or start to tie your shoelace. Either of these or other little acts will probably throw off your serving partner as well or delay the serve as your partner waits for your to get ready. Knowing your partner's service rhythm helps. You are trying to make an impression only upon the returning opponent.
I usually look toward something in the distance left or right of the returner, adjust some clothing or scratch my knee, all the while, keeping the returner in my peripheral vision. I simply look as if I'm not quite there, if you know what I mean. As soon as my partner strikes the ball, I smoothly (not jumping to attention) bring everything to the ready position, hoping the returner has already made his decision to get my attention, which he or she unknowingly already has.
These attention-getting shots are rarely that difficult to handle. What does one need to get a ball past someone sleeping? Not much. Fine, rip one to me at the net.
If your opponents become so concerned with what you may or may not do next more so than what they plan to do, then at least your feinting has paid off hugely in adding one more thing they now have to be concerned with while planning or making a stroke.

Have fun with it. Just don't tell anyone.

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