Have you ever played a match against someone who always manages to somehow return the ball – even if you’re playing spellbinding, Federer-esque winners? Did they simply plonk the ball back into the centre of the court, making no attempt to win the point? Did this cause you to mutter choice expletives under your breath? If so, you’ve come into contact with a “pusher”.
Wikipedia, that trustworthy font of all knowledge, defines a pusher as “a defensive player who ‘pushes’ back any shot they can chase down, without deliberately hitting a winner”, but that’s a bit of a generalisation. Pushers come in all shapes and sizes: from beginners who are just trying to keep up a decent rally to experienced players who are deliberately trying to frustrate their opponents. In fact, former professional Brad Gilbert was often labelled a pusher (most memorably by John McEnroe), but still reached the later stages of Grand Slams and went on to coach a certain Sir Andy Murray.
And, frankly, there’s no shame in being one – pushing is a legitimate tactic that often requires a great amount of poise, consistency and technique (especially sidespin and backspin). “Pushers should be respected, not vilified,” wrote American coach Ron Waite. “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.”
However, many of us would disagree with Ron’s opinion, arguing that part of the fun (or, to use an even more nebulous term, beauty) of tennis is hitting, for example, a well-struck, aggressive winner down the line. After all, it’s a living, breathing sport – not a contest between two robots. So, for those of you who nodded or shouted “hear hear” while reading that last sentence, how do you actually beat a pusher?
Luckily, the internet is full of – often contradictory – advice about how exactly to a defeat an infuriatingly unambitious opponent. An excellent place to start is with an instructional Tennis Now video from coach Blair Henley. While stating that you should always respect the opposition, Blair emphasises the importance of footwork, recovery after a baseline shot and making the most of an attacking opportunity.
More specific advice comes in a Daily Tennis Lesson video exploring the dangers of overhitting while playing a pusher. It explains how you must rein back the temptation to blast a winner and make an avoidable unforced error in the process, which is “exactly what this type of player wants to see”. Instead, you should hit “more conservative”, precise shots and wait for a shorter ball to attack.
Finally, this tutorial from Total Tennis Domination sees coach Kevin Garlington run through how to beat a pusher with a forehand, or “fake”, slice. The shot involves fooling your opponent into thinking you’re going to hit a normal forehand but then hitting a slice instead, drawing the pusher closer to the net. Consequently, they leave their natural habitat, the baseline, and feel more uncomfortable and exposed.
So, the next time you come up against a serial pusher, keep the three above tips in mind and let us know how you got on in the comments section.