There are three main types of anticipation in table tennis. You develop all three by practice and observation. Often the key to all of these is to learn when your opponent has committed to what he's doing, especially his direction, so you can anticipate and react to his shot earlier than if you waited until the ball came off his racket. You also don't want to move too soon, allowing him to change direction. This is why it's good to observe players in advance, and to test them out early in your match. Often players never get past the stage of reacting to the ball coming off their opponent's racket, and so they lose precious time in reacting to their shots. Here are the three types of anticipation:
- Remembering what your opponent has done in the past. Examples: If he has a big forehand but almost always goes crosscourt, you can anticipate it. If his first attack is almost always at your middle, as some do, you can anticipate it. If you are lobbing and your opponent almost always smashes to your wide backhand to keep you from forehand counter-attacking, you can anticipate it and step over as he smashes, and forehand counter-attack. If he flips all of your short serves, or pushes them all long to your backhand, or something else, you can anticipate it. If he always pushes to your wide backhand, you can anticipate it.
- Recognizing the situation the opponent is in. For example, if you do a big breaking serve deep to the backhand, so the ball curves away from the receiver, it's difficult for him to take it down the line. So you can anticipate that it'll come back crosscourt. Or suppose you are lobbing and do a very deep, spinny lob to his wide backhand. Most players will have trouble smashing this down the line, so you can anticipate he's going more toward your backhand.
- By watching the opponent's backswing and forward swing, you can learn at what point in his swing he's committed to a direction. From that, you can anticipate where he's going before he actually contacts the ball. For example, if the opponent rotates his shoulders way around on his forehand backswing, he's probably going down-the-line, while if he minimizes this rotation, he's probably going crosscourt. On most shots, the opponent's racket aims where he's going by the time he starts his forward swing, and so you can anticipate from that. (At higher levels, players can use these things to throw opponents off, so how and when you can anticipate varies from opponent to opponent.) This is probably the most important anticipation of all, and perhaps the hardest to develop. It takes years of actively observing players so you can develop an instinct for when they really are committed.