How to beat a Pusher
First of all, it’s not helpful to mentally designate someone as a pusher. So although I titled this article ‘how to beat a pusher’, really I would not encourage use of the term to describe an opponent, or classify a player.
The problem is that it’s a derogatory term used to imply that your opponent does not hit the ball aggressively, and merely blocks everything back in a neutral way. Since everything is blocked back and keeps you neutralized, you find yourself struggling to attack, making errors, and generally becoming frustrated by their consistent dinks back into the court. It’s easy to scoff at them as being inferior players, and be frustrated at their style of play – but it’s simply one type of problem you must solve when you are playing. They’re presenting you with a challenge and you need to think in order to solve it.
By just saying ‘Oh, Tom is just a Pusher.’ You immediately are on a footing of disrespect, and this can be dangerous because it brings your ego into your shot selection. If you view your opponent as being very beneath you because they are a ‘pusher’, then it is tempting to think that your superior shot-making skills ought to shine through – that you should be hitting winners and dominating the court. When this doesn’t occur, you start to get angry at yourself for not playing beautifully, or your opponent for forcing you to play an ugly match. You might start attacking when you are not in an offensive position, or pressing to try and attack too aggressively in order to end the point.
If you look on the internet or ask a tennis pro ‘how do I beat a pusher???’ usually they’ll come back with some basic tips like ‘be patient’ or ‘finish the point at the net’. And these tactical considerations can be helpful and important. But I believe that 90% of the time when one is playing a “pusher”, they end up losing many points (or the match) because they lose the mental game, and beat themselves.
If you haven’t already read it, my post on Controlled Aggression is particularly important when playing someone who constantly tries to neutralize you, and give you no pace. You have to be very aware as to when you are in control of the point, have some comfort in causing them hurt (get them running), and know when you should finish the point.
When going into a match with an opponent who hits a lot of no-pace neutralizing shots, you should accept right away that it’s going to be an ugly match. You will have to adapt your playing style however you must in order to win. Accept that you are going to hit errors, and hit some bad ones. You’ll hit easy volleys and overheads into the net. It’s inevitable. But in the long run, trust that your high percentage play will win you the match. You’ll find yourself hitting a sitter out – and your internal dialogue has to be ‘Ok that was wide, but I was correct in trying to attack that ball, and in the long run I’ll make more than I miss. It was the high percentage play. So it’s okay.’ Think tactically rather than fixating on your “pusher” opponent.
If you think about it – your consistency should be the same as the “pusher” since you are technically superior. And they likely do not have weapons to attack you with – otherwise they would try to utilize them. So you should be equal in terms of consistency, but you should have a series of weapons you can utilize should you choose to. What determines whether you win or lose is your shot selection, energy spend, and conditioning. You need to be efficient with your emotional and physical energy spend during the match. A “pusher” player can wear you down if you get angry at yourself, and they can wear you down if you try to attack every ball with maximum effort.
You need to work the point – get control of the point by hitting with depth, hitting to their weakness, then use your control to make them run. Angled balls that bounce off the court are particularly effective I find. Most ‘Pusher’ type players tend to stand very far behind the baseline, and focus only on moving forward and backward to cover deep balls and dropshots. They are comfortable running to drop shots and beating you at net. They are comfortable hitting lobs over and over if you hit it deep. Play high percentage tennis – don’t go outside your comfort zone to try and force the point in your favor.
- Know Your own Capabilities!
Many times I hear beginners talk about how frustrating it is to play ‘Pushers’ because they hit with no pace. First, take a close look at your own game and ask – if I got 100 balls fed to me with no pace in the middle of the court, am I technically capable – skillful enough – to consistently attack the ball? Would I hit more than 30% of my attacking shots out or in the net?
If your error rate is that high, then yes of course someone who focuses solely on consistency of 100% is going to beat you. You have to match their consistency of 100%, and only attack when you can win the point with near certainty. I’d say attack aggressively in situations where you know you’ll win 90% of the time. If you’re not advanced enough to consistently build points and play with control, then you’re by no means allowed to snicker at ‘pusher’ players. You first have to work on your control, technique, spin, power, etc. Past a certain point in player development and strength conditioning, ‘pusher’ players no longer become a true challenge.
Let’s say you gain control of the point by hitting a great heavy deep ball to their backhand. You then get a weak reply, and you hit a nice angle ball off the court to get them running. They manage to get it back, and you hit an angled shot to the other side of the court. They’re running again and will only just be able to get their racquet on it. If you are positioned at the net, then you put away the volley and win the point. If you’re positioned at the baseline, then your opponent simply float a weak high slice back into the court, giving himself time to recover, and you have to start all over again. So people say close the net against pushers – but only after you have hurt them and can anticipate the weak return.
Usually ‘Pusher’ players have bad footwork – advanced footwork comes with advanced play. They may be quick running out wide, but if you hit the ball right at them down the middle of the court, they may not be able to get out of their own way. It’s also a higher percentage play for you. So test their ability at responding to deep balls down the middle of the court, and a change of pace – soft, soft, hard.