Like all games when played at the highest level, tennis often requires managing and toying with an opponent’s expectations. Do you think they’ll hit the ball cross-court? Ready yourself for that ball. But maybe they think you think they’ll hit it cross-court? Stay vigilant for the down-the-line. What if they think that you think that they think that you think that—I think you grasp the point here.
In truth, the best players can still beat opponents with shots they see coming. They’ll spot the bear trap a mile out and stumble hopelessly into it anyway. But there’s still plenty of guile involved in the more improvisational exchanges on court, and it helps to have some feints ready for a tricky situation.
One of the most abject and wonderful ways to fiddle with expectations is to act as if you’ve stopped playing the point altogether. Gael Monfils is probably the master of this. When he’s hit an easy ball to his opponent, he’s prone to go totally limp and listless, only to spring awake on those those fast-twitch, former track-star legs and hunt down the ball. The opponent, thinking the point was in the bag and mentally checked out, might no longer be in any position to reply. Going from 100 to 0 to 100 really works. (When it comes to really “selling” this trick, it helps to be the type of player who gives up on entire sets, let alone points.) Sometimes this kind of feint really pisses the opponent off! For everyone else, it’s a charming form of gamesmanship.
Today, Kei Nishikori, local favorite at the Japan Open, played second-round opponent Benoit Paire, a popped-collar Frenchman who tends to startle his opponents (and his rackets). Nishikori strikes a backhand approach much shallower than he might’ve liked, then is forced to stab at a backhand volley. He makes it, and it’s a crafty pickup, but the ball is just floating in the air, ready to be put to death. Seeing Paire get to the ball easily, Nishikori goes flaccid. This is not the posture of someone who is committed to hanging around in a point, fighting to the death. Racket pointing straight down, body tilted, feet walking distance apart—it’s the posture of someone ready to spark up a cigarette on court.
Paire sees Nishikori just standing there, which is an important step. He then takes the bait and bats the ball into the yawningly empty side—but once he’s already committed to the shot, head down, Nishikori rises from the dead. Suddenly he’s the one sprinting across the court, knocking the ball back into open space.
You have to be fast, but sometimes it really does pay to play dead. Nishikori won, 6-3, 7-5.