Originally Posted by LuckyR
I previously downplayed what Pros do, since neither the OP, me or you are Pros, so that information adds very little to this discussion. But that seems to be all you are interested in.
Nonetheless, the article you cite actually supports my point, that Pros move to the ball before seeing where it is going:
"Conventional wisdom says that the returner should split step as the server makes contact with the ball. The film shows this isn't quite how it happens. What we actually see is that most players are already in the air at the time of the contact. The split step actually begins a few fractions of a second before the server hits. At this point the server's racket is still on it's way up to the ball.
But there is something else. Traditionally when we think of the split step we think of the player landing on both feet in a balanced position ready to move either way to the ball. That's not always how it happens on the pro return. Take a close look at the feet as the players come down. You'll see that before the player lands on the court, the foot closest to the ball can actually start to flare in the direction of the return. This is the start of the turn or the preparation for the return.
So the players are starting the split step well before contact. They do this by unweighting before the server hits. This puts them in the air at contact. And sometimes they are actually starting their move to the ball before they land on the court. Were players taught this? I don't think so. It's an adaption developed through experience over time.
Can it be developed, and if so how? The conventional wisdom is that the key is to timing the return is focus on the ball and react to the contact. But there is some interesting new research that suggests something different. A study done by a researcher in Virginia used goggles to record what the players did with their eyes on the return. What she found was that expert returners focused on the ball, but they were also looking at the body of the server, particularly the upper body. The same research showed that novice players didn't do this, but could be looking at different areas around the court almost randomly.
Probably what this indicates is that the brain of the returner is picking up clues about the return from watching the body of server. They might not know or be able to explain what those clues are because it probably happens subconsciously. It's just something that the player's develop automatically from focusing on the right area of the body. This may explain some of the footage we've seen in which a player like Pete Sampras appears to be reacting and starting his move to one side faster than research says is humanly possible."
But again at the Club level it is no big deal to "know" that some guy's second serve is highly likely to be hit towards your BH (since he has done it 100% of the time so far) and start running around your BH for an inside out FH winner. Really it is not a big gamble, either on the prediction part or the recovery part if you guess wrong. Really.
I feel like you're confusing "being in the air" with "moving prematurely". You can certainly anticipate where the ball is going to land. That's the "cues" that the article is describing. This is different from outright guessing.
They are not taking any early steps toward the ball; the article clearly says they are merely in the air on contact, and land in the direction of the ball. This is typical return of serve technique; every 5.0 and above does this at some point.
The article's contention is that they take a bigger, earlier split step to read the ball, that's it. It says nothing about "moving before knowing" nor "guessing". What you cited was essentially how pros anticipate patterns and direction. No where does it say that pros outright move before seeing the ball; they are merely split-stepping to improve their reaction.
I'm only bringing up the pros because they are the highest level of play; they do what's most optimal in terms of technique. I'm trying to discuss this in the context of playing against a superior, powerful server: someone who can kick it virtually any direction, hit over 100mph, place the ball, etc.
Taking actual steps
before seeing the ball being hit is poor technique. Nobody does this, unless you're taking forward or backward steps.