In the 2017 semi-final of The Tournament of Champions, Gregory Gaultier defeated (or maybe hustled is a more appropriate word) Mohamed ElShorbagy. The reason I use this match as a reference point is that Gaultier was “playing injured” for a large part of the later stages of the match. It is well worth watching the highlights of this match here and seeing a masterclass in manipulation from Gaultier. Greg may well have been injured, but to what extent we can never know. When the rallies were being played you could not really spot the injury, but between points, Greg made very sure every single person knew about it including Mohamed.
What Gaultier did was to take Mohamed completely off his task and his game plan. Mohamed started to play reactive and impulsive shots. Rallies got short and choppy. Greg was controlling the pace and tempo and where the ball should be in what part of the court. This match is an example of how the pendulum swings. It did not look like Gaultier was going to complete the match at one point and this messed with Shorbagy’s mental state. I have been lucky enough to speak to Mohamed about this match and he says it was awful, but he is also thankful for experiencing it as he will never make the same mistakes again and has learnt quickly from it.
The Wounded Buffalo
Growing up in Africa we were always told about the danger of the wounded buffalo. A buffalo is a pretty grumpy beast as it is and you will do well to avoid them where possible. But a WOUNDED BUFFALO is way more than grumpy. It turns into a predator. If a hunter is wanting to shoot a buffalo, the remit is “shoot to kill!” Not for one second do I condone, or support hunting, and I think it’s a deplorable act on the whole, but I will use this analogy for the sake of this blog.
There are many, many stories about a hunter wounding but not killing a buffalo and then the buffalo turning a predator. A deep-rooted mechanism kicks in with the wounded buffalo and they have been known to stalk their prey (the hunter) for days on end, circling around the hunter that attempted to kill it and exhibiting all the behaviours you may associate with a lion or leopard looking for its dinner. There are plenty of stories of the buffalo finding the hunter hours and even days later and gorging and trampling them to death.
This analogy can be likened to playing against an injured player. Proceed with caution! Do not take the wounded player for granted. Understand they will likely exhibit some killer instinct if they decide to continue to play. Treat them like you would a wounded buffalo!
Play your game
You need to try and block out this external distraction and continue to play your game. It is so easy to lose sight of this and the game you want and should be playing. Of course, you can show some empathy for the opponent but if they do declare themselves fit at the start of each rally you need to focus back on what you should be doing. An injured player is an uncontrollable factor. And as soon as something is outside of your control you will be best served to not give it any effort or attention. All this does is take you away from the task at hand which is about finding a way to win. Focus on yourself and your game and what you will do in the next rally to win the point. Your process should trump your overthinking about where the injured player is struggling the most.
Get higher on the T
It is likely that your opponent is going to take much higher risks and look to do so by taking the ball in short a lot earlier in the rally. If their injury is genuine then they will unlikely want to have long drawn-out exchanges and they need to find a way to get points on the board and do so very quickly. Because of this be sure to take up a high T position to expect the ball to be chopped in short.
When you get to their short balls, it’s also not about panicking and making rash decisions. Be calm, composed, and play the correct shot in the moment. It is tempting to get on their short balls early and then get excited and take too much risk. Yes, do look to get on the balls early but be calm and assured in what you are doing next. No need to panic.
Variation is a key tactic against any opponent but for an injured player using a lot more height within your variation is key. There is nothing worse for an injured player having to stretch and reach up high to get a ball. No matter what part of the body is injured, stretching and reaching up high will expose almost any injury. Equally so, linked to getting higher on the T, the injured player will tend to take the ball in short more often and really push up high to attack you. Know this and know their court position, so then lifting the ball and hanging it high will really begin to expose them. Try and combine lifting the ball with getting it low the next shot. Making your opponent work in a high-to-low fashion is really hard work at the best of times, never mind if there is an injury also present.
It can be so easy to relax and think that you have won and that no resistance will come from your opponent. You begin to lose your assertiveness on the game, and you can easily take your foot off their throat. Like what Mohamed did against Greg in that semi-final. This is a slightly tricky balance as the tendency would be to finish the rally off early and go for some cheap winners. Be mindful of this and get your balances right here. You want to be assertive and play an attacking shot on merit, but equally, so you don’t want to just throw the ball in short at the first half opportunity you get. This links to playing your game but you just need to be a little more mindful and present when using this tactic.
Extend the rally
If you feel you can extend the rally, and do it well, then back yourself! You do not necessarily need to take on crazy risks. Your opponent is now playing with half a deck of cards if they have an injury. You can expose this by extending the rallies and offering up no cheap points. Like being assertive above, get your balances right. Just rallying for rallying sake may serve no purpose and not really expose the injury, but rallying with a purpose to move the ball around, change the pace and angles, keep the risk low and ultimately look to be mean on there can serve you well. You need to be confident in your skillset to employ this tactic and be sure to have it to hand when you encounter an injured player.
As a side note, if you do notice that there is an obvious weakness in one area of the court, for example, they can’t lunge into the front right on their right leg, then of course put the ball there a little more often. Extending the rally is all good and well and you still need to do this, but be mindful that when you have the chance, the front right, in this example, will pay a lot of dividends. Be careful to not overuse this weapon also as your opponent can then easily predict where you are playing and make their way there before you have even hit.
In summary, try and avoid falling into the trap of believing you have won the match before it is over, and you are shaking hands. You can’t lose what you don’t have so try and not let the fear take over. The injury that your opponent is exhibiting may be a slight niggle they can run off, or it may be a complete bluff. If your opponent declares themselves fit to play the next rally, then you need to respect and treat this as such. They are now just another opponent, but even more so, they may be the wounded buffalo which we know is a dangerous predator.
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