Players are often amazed at how accurate a top player can place his shots. This is an important skill to develop since the large majority of the time there are only three places you want to place your shots - wide forehand, wide backhand, and the opponent's middle (midway between forehand and backhand - see Attacking the Middle, where this is explained). When your shot goes elsewhere (i.e. toward the middle of the forehand or backhand sides) you give your opponent a much easier shot, where he doesn't even have to move much. And yet most players let their shots drift out of these three spots, and lose many matches as a result. So how can you learn to hit these shots accurately?
Obviously you can go out to the table and just practice relentlessly, aiming for these three shots. But there's a shortcut that'll help before you do all this relentless practice. Go to the backhand side of your table, stick your racket out as if you were doing a backhand block, and aim it crosscourt, wide to the opponent's backhand (if you are both righties). Make sure your racket is aimed right at the wide corner, or even slightly outside the corner. Keep holding the racket out there until you have literally memorized the feel of holding the racket in this position, so that in a game situation, you'll go into this position and hit the shot right to that spot.
Now repeat, except now aim it down the line. Again, memorize the feel of holding the racket in that position. Then repeat one more time, this time aiming at where the opponent's middle would be. (Alas, you actually have to do this twice, for a righty and lefty opponent, since the righty's middle will be a bit to the right of the midline, the lefty to the left.)
Once you've memorized the feel of the racket aiming where you want it to go, imagine the ball going to your left, and step there with your left foot, and imagine keeping the racket angle so that it still aims where you want it to go. Now imagine a ball going to your right, and step there with your right foot, and again imagine keeping the racket angle so that it still aims where you want it to go. Moving is no excuse for losing ball control - the ball will still go wherever you aim your racket.
Now repeat all of the above with your forehand!
Here are some complications to be aware of.
- When blocking, you can keep the racket aimed exactly where you want it to go the entire shot, so aiming should be easy. (Advanced players learn to change the direction of the racket at the last second to throw opponent's off, and you should as well, but in the end you are still aiming the ball where you want it to go, and if you memorize the feel of the racket aiming in each direction, you can do this very quickly.) With longer strokes, the racket may not aim where you want it to go during the backswing, but it should do so well before contact. Learn to time this so that the racket aims where you want the ball to go far enough before contact that you can get the feel of aiming the racket to the three spots. (Four if you count the middle twice, one for righties and one for lefties.)
- A ball with sidespin will bounce at least slightly sideways off your racket, and a ball coming at you from an angle will also bounce off your racket slightly sideways. However, if you stroke the ball sharply enough, this sideways movement is minimized to the point where you barely have to adjust for it.
- Unlike playing to the wide forehand and backhand, the opponent's middle is a moving target. His middle is based on where he is standing. As the opponent moves in a rally, his middle will move. Also, some players have both a neutral stance (so middle is about midway between forehand and backhand) and a forehand- or backhand-favoring stance (and so the middle moves more to "weaker" side). The more you play an opponent's middle the more it becomes natural to find this moving target.
- You won't always be hitting from the same spot. If you hit a backhand from the wide backhand, and another from the middle, you have to adjust where you aim the racket so that it still goes to the three spots. This quickly become second nature.
Once you get into the habit of aiming the racket by learning the feel of it, you'll be able to accurately hit shots to the corners and middle at will, against any incoming shot, and from all parts of the table. This will put tremendous pressure on opponents since you won't be giving them many easy shots - and this relentless ball placement will pay off in many wins!