Almost without fail, every three months I receive e-mail from a reader who asks, "How should I play the "pusher?" It may be that you have been a victim of this much-maligned type of opponent.
A Pusher is a player who seems to possess no weapons, hits 95% of her/his shots with absolutely no pace, and then suddenly will burn you with a clean winner. The pusher's form is usually quite unorthodox, breaks most of the classic rules of tennis stroke production, and frequently, the pusher appears to be physically out of shape. Still, the pusher finds a way to win!
Players, who face the pusher, even when they are triumphant, are frustrated. If a player does lose to a pusher, he/she frequently is heard saying, "I can't believe I lost! I am clearly the better player."
Such is the legacy of the dreaded "pusher."
Pushers should be respected, not vilified. After all, there are no "style points" in tennis. Either you win or you lose. As long as you play within the rules of the game, how you win is really not that important.
Well, here we are in November. Most of us who live north of the equator will be heading indoors to play our wonderful game. Those readers who are south of the equator will be starting to gear up for the start of their outdoor season.
If you are in the former category, you may want to take the time to learn the "pushing" style of play. If you are in the latter category you are likely to be playing on a slow, clay surface. The clay surface is absolutely ideal for the pusher.
In past articles, I have addressed my strategies for playing the pusher type of player. Well, this month I am actually going to teach how to become a pusher! In the process of learning to play the pusher's style of tennis, two things will probably result. First, you will have a new strategy to employ during matches. Also, it is likely that by playing this style of tennis you will better understand how to defeat opponents who utilize this style of play.
Those of you who follow my column faithfully, realize that I see three basic types of players existing. Type A players are the type of competitors who simply hit balls without much, if any, strategy. They usually possess some significant weapons in their arsenal of strokes, and they frequently hit every ball as hard as they can.
Type B players are "thinkers." They are not really blessed with exceptional strokes, but they are willing to think their way into a strategy that brings success. Type B players are often times consummate pushers.
Type C players are a combination of the two. These players are truly formidable on the court, and certainly most difficult to defeat. Andre Agassi started out as a Type A player and under the tutelage of Brad Gilbert and Darren Cahill, became to true Type C player. He had the weapons, knew the strategies, and employed the approach most likely to bring him a victory. If he were losing, he would adapt.
Well if you are a Type A player, my column this month will force you to be more of a Type B player. If you are already a Type B player, you may be a bit unhappy that I am putting forth this month's instruction.
In my mind, the goal for all players is to become a Type C player. In reaching this level of play ability, you are truly able to find a way to win in virtually any situation. Even should you not win, you will not have lost because you had only one approach to playing this great game of ours.
With all this in mind, let's talk about what is needed to become a pusher.
On the pro level, a world-class pusher was Brad Gilbert. He didn't strike the ball. he massaged it. I think the title of his famous book; Winning Ugly: Mental Warfare in Tennis-Lessons from a Master adds credibility to my assessment of his game. If you are looking to fully advance your Type B capabilities, this book should be on your required reading list.
The first element in becoming a pusher is learning to hit balls high, and deep. There are two ways to get a ball deep into the court. You can hit it very hard while directing it to pass low over the net. Or, you can hit at half or three quarter pace, but make certain that the ball passes at least 3 or 4 feet over the net. Pushers are able to do the latter with uncanny consistency. They may or may not impart topspin, but most important, they can hit balls that come to them with lots of pace and simply "bunt" their reply high and deep.
One can learn to do this by having a hitting partner strike everyone of her/his shots with as much pace as is possible. Your job is to learn to hit a high reply that utilizes this pace. You probably won't be taking much of a backswing, nor will you "muscle" your shots. If you are having difficulty learning this type of reply, pretend that every shot you hit is a topspin lob that is meant to go over your opponent's head. Assume that this opponent is at the net. How would you lob a winning shot in this situation? This is exactly how pushers hit many of their groundstrokes.
Next you will need to develop good sliced shots off of both wings. These slice shots need to be hit in both a manner that imparts lots of pace and in a manner where the ball has very little pace. By hitting lots of slice to two handed backhands and to forehands that use a semi-western or western grip, you will be keeping the ball out of these strokes typical "strike zone." By being able to vary the pace of your slice, you can prevent the opponent from getting accustomed to your shots.
Forget about big first serves. Instead, use your second serve (particularly if it is a slice serve) as your first serve. The kick serve works well, but make certain to direct the kick to the opponent's backhand side. The sliced serve to forehand and kick serve to the backhand are great options in the "pushing" game. Why? Well, many forehands these days are hit with either the western or semi-western grip. These grips usually have difficulty returning a serve that forces them wide. This is particularly true if the ball does not bounce very high. The kick serve is normally a safe option when directed at the backhand wing. This is truer with opponents who hit with one-handed backhands. The high bounce prevents the opponent from really "teeing" off on the return of serve.
The pusher is patient. If you are eager to end points, you will need to learn to wait until a clear opportunity presents itself to attempt any winner. Indeed, hitting winners should be the exception, not the rule, when playing the pusher's style of tennis.
Pushers view the court differently. Instead of thinking right to left (sometimes referred to as coast to coast), pushers view the court as near and far (sometimes referred to as north/south).
Recognizing that many opponents can hit with authority when moving side to side at the baseline, pushers take these players out of their comfort zone. They hit plenty of shots that land in the center of the court, but always very deep often times with lots of backspin. This usually forces the opponent to lose patience, and hit shots with lots of pace that land deep or frequently into the net. Type A players hate to have to generate their own pace, but will attempt to do so.
If the pusher is successful with this tack, the opponent will eventually begin to take pace off his/her replies. This is when the pusher will force the opponent to stay deep behind the baseline during rallies. Then without warning, the pusher will hit a perfectly struck drop shot that forces the opponent to scramble to the net. If the opponent is able move quickly and makes a volley or half volley in her/his charge, it probably won't be struck with much pace. Knowing this, the pusher holds his/her ground and puts the opponent's weak reply away with a volley or even a full-swing stroke.
So in addition to learning to hit low paced groundstrokes that land deep, the pusher needs to add the drop shot to his/her arsenal.
Once the pusher finds a weakness in her/his opponent, she/he will exploit it as often as is possible. Of course, eventually the opponent learns to handle whatever is causing her/him such difficulty. This is when the pusher changes speeds and begins to play a more normally paced game.
You see the idea behind the pusher's strategy is to upset the rhythm of his/her opponent, and to frustrate the opponent as much as is possible. Pushers do win some points by hitting winners, but the basis of their game approach is to help the opponent lose!
As a result, the pusher is most adaptable. She or he, has difficulty with the serve/volley opponent, and for them, these players are frequently their biggest nemesis. Why? Soft groundstrokes are usually easy to volley and provide enough time for the opponent to get to the net. Well-placed volleys force the pusher to move more than he/she would like. Usually, pushers like to move as little as is possible in a match. Thus, many pushers are a bit overweight and/or out of good physical conditioning.
One tactic that rarely works is to try to out push the pusher. If you encounter a pusher, you can beat him/her with his/her own tactics... but only if you truly own them. If not, the natural pusher will have a field day with you.
Pushing is not a style that garners much praise. Indeed, most players downplay the skills of the pusher. But, pushers win lots of matches against what are really superior players... at least with respect to tennis stroke production and weapons.
So, the next time you encounter a pusher give her/him the respect she/he deserves!
Although it may not be your natural or preferred style of play, everyone can learn to "push" and in my opinion should.
Next time you are competing against that "big gun," heavy hitter who seemingly should be competing in the U.S, Open, try the pushing style of play. It may be just enough to turn the tide in your favor.
Practice pushing! It takes some time and effort to master this approach to the game. However, I assure you that if you do, it may be extremely helpful in making you become a tennis overdog!