A match doesn't always go to the player with the best shots. Just as often it goes to the player who knows how to control play. It doesn't matter how strong the opponent's shots may be if he rarely gets a chance to use them effectively. How do you do this?
You control a match primarily with serve and receive, which sets up your first shot in the rally. When choosing these shots you should ask yourself three questions:
- What serve/receive is your opponent weakest against?
This is the most obvious and needs little explaining. It's also the most overused, as opponents expect this, and develop ways to overcome these weaknesses. This doesn't mean you shouldn't pound your opponent on his weaknesses, but if that's the limit of your tactics, you'll have trouble controlling a match against many players.
- What serve/receive will put your opponent into a weak position?
Sometimes this overlaps with #1 above, but not always. For example, a player may have a very good forehand flip against a short serve to the forehand, but it draws him over the table, and if he's weaker on the backhand, it might leave him open on that side. So you might sometimes serve short to the forehand, and prepare to block his flip to his backhand, and then take control of the rally. Or, against a strong forehand player, sometimes challenge his forehand by serving deep there, and quick block to the weaker backhand side, and take control of the rally. (The reverse of both of these also works, where you serve to the backhand and block to the forehand.)
The same idea works when receiving. For example, a player may have a strong forehand loop against backspin, but if you aim your receive to the forehand, and then at the last second instead quick push to the backhand, it takes away the opponent's forehand loop and puts him in a weak position. In general, if an opponent is strong on one side but weaker on the other, you might want to go wide to the strong side first, then quick block to the weak side, catching the opponent out of position and forced to use his weaker side while moving or reaching.
- What serve/receive is your opponent not expecting?
This is probably most underused tactic. If a player has trouble with a certain serve, receive, or shot, he'll likely be expecting it. While you should still pound him on this weakness, you'll do even better if you regularly catch him off guard with the unexpected. Examples are endless - you simply vary all of your serves, receives, and shots to keep the opponent off guard, forcing erratic or weaker returns, and then take control of the rally. But there are a number of standard combinations that can keep an opponent guessing. For example, using the same serving motion, serve either short to the forehand with varying spins (including no-spin), and deep, breaking serves to the backhand. The opponent doesn't know if he's got to be ready to step in for the short serve to the forehand or cover the wide, deep backhand. Then throw in a few other serves, such as a fast no-spin to the middle, and watch the opponent wither.
This tactic is also way underused when receiving. Far too many players receive predictably over and over rather than catch the opponent off guard. This is often because a player doesn't have confidence in more than one type of receive against a given serve - but rather than resigning himself to mediocrity, why not develop a full range of receives, so that you can both receive in the way the opponent has the most trouble against (#1 above), as well as being able to vary the receive and so leaving your opponent never knowing what to expect?
Always remember - whoever has the bigger serve & receive arsenal - and knows how to use it to control play - usually wins.