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Courtesy of elevenpoints.wordpress.com
The first thing you have to understand is where the difficulties lie. Your practice partners know your game intimately in some cases especially if they are your main practice partners. They know your playing style, the strokes you favour, your service habits and setups and your signature tactics. They know your array of strengths and weaknesses. Often apart from these general facts, they also know how you react to many of their plays, how you respond to certain serves, placements, spins. They have a lot of information.
The hardest part about playing a practice partner is that sometimes they know things about your game which you may not have noticed. It can be easier to observe things from across the table than in self-reflection. This can be used to their advantage in matches.
How to Approach the Match:
Prepare the Best You Can: First of all you need to make sure you are in top shape prior to the match, be sure you have warmed up well and formulated a game plan. Sometimes in matches against our training partners we can ignore areas of preparation and assume we know what to do. Any edge you can get will help so it pays to put in the effort to give yourself the best chance of success.
Re-visit Training Videos: If it is an important match then be sure to check out any training videos you have. Shift your focus onto your training partner instead of personal evaluation.
Focus on Initiating: Whether you are predictable or not, making the first move will still offer an advantage. You need to work as hard as you can to target the weaknesses of your partner that you have learnt over time and try and shut down their strengths. Both of you will be battling to do this so your main task is to be the player who always gets in the first move, whether it be by finding effective serves or by initiating and staying positive on serve receive.
Ask Others for Advice: Sometimes if you train with someone frequently you may become somewhat numb to thinking about their actions in a tactical sense, you don't consider them to be an opponent. Other people however may consider them to be opposition and these are the people you can ask for ideas, perhaps about particular things that work for them in matches against your practice partner that you may not have tried before.
Persson beats friend and teammate Waldner in the 1991 WTTC Finals
Finding The Best Tactical Approach:
Service Tactics: While your partner may handle your serves better, don't try and focus on forcing errors or setting up easy balls. A training partner is not often going to give you a free point if they know all of your serves. What you need to focus on is patterns and how your training partner typically responds to your serves. With a heightened level of comfort it may be different to how other plays would respond but this doesn't mean you can't stay a step ahead.
Say for example you have a well hidden no-spin serve variation which players try to push and the ball pops up. Your training partner will know when the serve is no spin and act accordingly, perhaps instead they will flick the ball. With that knowledge you should then prepare for that as a more likely scenario.
So really with your service game it's about adapting all of your information to focus specifically on the patterns in how your training partner receives your serves and then altering your tactics based on that information.
Target Weaknesses on Serve Receive: As I mentioned above, taking the initiative and making the first move will always lend you an advantage. On the serve receive you need to take as many opportunities to target weaknesses early on as possible. You can also look at ways to close out favourable options. If your partner has a strong forehand then you may consider playing wide to the backhand off serve receive first in order to expose more space. This is an idea of trying to reduce an area of strength.
Another example would be if my partner is particularly good at backhand opening, can I improve the situation by first playing short to the forehand and then driving a deep push into the backhand instead of just pushing long to the backhand straight away. Do they have time to recover to play a strong backhand in that scenario? Perhaps not.
Don't Use Typical Set Plays in Crucial Situations: Your set plays are your biggest weapons in a match, these are kind of your signature tactics. When you need to win crucial points what is your most common play? I wrote a blog about How to Win Crucial Points in Table Tennis.
These usually involve a planned point with a high rate of success, a planned point which no doubt your training partner knows all about and for that reason it is not sensible to use those special set plays when you need to win points. You will need to try things out and devise other set plays which are unique to your opponent during the course of the match.
Be Unpredictable: Try and use unpredictability to your advantage. Perhaps you are a player who when given an easy ball always tries to put the ball in cross-court? Change tact, see if your partner is waiting for a particular ball, if they are sitting cross-court, play down the line. If your partner sees you preparing for a serve and gets ready to move in, predicting a short serve...serve long. You need to try and be different and see if your partner shows any signs of trying to pre-empt you. This may at times involve more risk so you have to evaluate each ball in the blink of an eye and balance out your decision making.
Make the Most of Variation and Change: I always focus on trying to keep my serve variations hard to read. This means keeping the action very similar and making incredibly subtle changes in my contact in order to change the spin. For this reason, even the players I practice with often don't really have a comfortable grasp on my service game in matches. I have many different actions and variations, pendulums, regular serves, reverse serves, high toss, tomohawks, backhand serves. I am able to change my service game in a very unpredictable manner and that has helped me personally have great success with my service game, even against higher players and training partners.
This also applies to tactics, if you can't find any one given tactic that works for you, keep changing, keep the tactics in motion. This way your partner/opponent will find it more difficult to predict what you are going to do next and it also breaks away from holding your usual patterns and routines.
Well I hope my thoughts on this topic will be useful to some of you. As always, please do submit any feedback or topic questions to firstname.lastname@example.org