Three Secrets for
By John Yandell
"I lost to him but that's because he's a pusher! It doesn't really count because that wasn't real tennis!"
You've probably heard that one several times. Possibly you've said it yourself, either out loud or inside your head.
But face the underlying reality. That really was tennis and you really wanted to beat that pusher. And you experienced pain—along with damage to your self-image--when you did not.
When a player loses to an opponent he categorizes as a pusher, he can feel humiliated and desperate for an excuse. This is why we try to pretend that it wasn't real tennis or didn't count. How could you be "worse" than a player with no strokes who hits every ball 30 feet into the air?
In this article I am going to describe how to turn that humiliation, despair and denial into the only thing that will really help you feel good in the situation—victory! I'll outline three distinct strategies to do this, but strategies that can also be mixed together in matches.
The unique strategies are: Modified All Court Attack, the Mirror, and Drop Shot Destruction.
The Three Secrets:
What makes these strategies different? The idea of attacking to beat a pusher - either off the ground or at the net--is obviously not new, but the reality is that most players lack the skills to succeed with pure attacking tennis when faced with the unique challenges pushers present.
Since the pusher doesn't donate unforced errors, to win playing pure attack would mean having to win almost all your points hitting winners. That is asking a lot of even high level players.
To make attacking a pusher work, you need to modify your play and adjust to the realities of slower, higher balls and much longer rallies. I call this modified all court attack. Basically you learn to adapt and learn to use your weapons in different ways by making major adjustments in the rhythm of the exchanges..
The other two strategies are more unfamiliar and more radical, but can be phenomenally effective if executed correctly. Both are based on my experience observing and also coaching hundreds of high school and NTRP players—as well a few of my own painful losses and notable victories against this type of opponent.
I call them The Mirror and Drop Shot Destruction. Both are tactical, but they are fundamentally psychological at the same time. Because let's face it, a tough match with a pusher is as much a mental and emotional struggle as a physical one--and usually more.
These second two strategies are especially important because they will work when modified attacking strategies fail. They also work for players who may not truly have the inclination or the skills to prevail through attack, especially over the course of a long, tough match.
Reality is Cold
All three strategies require a basic understanding of just what you are getting into psychologically when you commit to really trying to win against a pusher.
The cold reality is that it isn't easy to defeat experienced, successful pushers—even with the right strategies. There is a reason pushers push. The reason is that pushing wins.
It isn't easy to beat them. And especially it isn't easy at first.
Developing the skills and the confidence to consistently defeat pushers is one of the biggest challenges in tennis. But it can also be one of the most overwhelming satisfying to achieve.
It's Tennis Alright
Whenever I hear someone start whining that "pushing" isn't tennis, I think of a famous coach and former world class player who ran huge, successful junior camps in Southern California. I think he actually looked forward to hearing that complaint.
He'd get this wry smile on his face, which made the excuse maker instantly uncomfortable. Then he'd pause for a while and watch his victim squirm.
Finally he'd say: "Really, that wasn't tennis? I could have sworn that was you I saw out there on the tennis court."
"Was I mistaken? Was that someone else?"
The response was usually humbled, or more likely, angry silence.
So be honest. If you can't face the reality that pushing is a very effective way to play tennis, just default and don't play the match.
And in fact I know players who openly embrace that approach. A teaching pro I know who was playing a league mixed doubles match against a couple who hit nothing but sky lobs missed three overheads in a row from behind the service line, told his partner he just didn't play that kind of tennis and walked off the court.
That's one solution—to go home with your denial mechanisms intact. But honestly wouldn't winning that match both tactically and psychologically be far more satisfying?
How the Pusher Thinks
Let's begin by trying to understand how the pusher thinks. First, the pusher knows very well people don't want to play him. He loves that!
The pusher also knows very well that pushing is an excruciating way to win points. He loves that too! He is ready to suffer to win and he is betting he is more willing to suffer than his opponents—far more willing.
The pusher also knows that you are probably indignant and convinced that you are the better player. Because of this he knows that your self-image is on the line big time.
And he knows that with every point he wins and every "easy" winner you choke, your frustration and your desperation grow. His real goal is to take you apart point by point until you suffer a complete collapse.
The pusher may back up that strategy by pretending to be the friendliest guy in the world. He may make comments like, "Wow, I'm surprised you missed that one." Or "I was really lucky, because I thought you had me there."
He loves it when he gets to rub it in that way. Meanwhile, even though he seems so polite, you are torn between the impulse to kill him and/or kill yourself.
So this is the first critical step. To realize what is really happening. To realize he probably isn't really that nice a guy. To realize that you are engaged in a war.
Realize too that the pusher isn't pushing because he can't actually hit the ball, he probably can. The pusher is pushing because he believes you are not physically and/or mentally skilled enough to do anything about it.
He wants to win at any cost. He also knows that there is a high likelihood that you will fall into his trap, unravel, and lose.
Pace is Collaborative
"I am going to blast this son of a bitch off the court," you tell yourself.
But let's look at the reality of that kind of declaration. The reality is that hard hitting exchanges that end with winners are actually a cooperative endeavor. You need your opponent to supply some of the pace.
This is why everyone's ideal opponent is someone who hits the ball really solidly and is just slightly more inconsistent than they are. You have great rallies that mainly end with your opponent's errors. You win and walk off the thinking you are a hell of player.
When the pusher slows the ball down that illusion is exposed. The pusher never gives you that solid, rhythmic pace that makes hitting winner possible. He never makes errors..
So you try to generate the ball speed to hit winners for yourself. This means changing the speed of every shot, and this is far more difficult than exchanging at a consistent, solid pace.
Most players don't understand this basic fact and so their errors mount. And then really mount. The errors eventually become more and more horrendous. When this spiral down starts the match can be over very quickly.
So the first step is simply to become aware. You need to realize that you are in a war and that you have to win the psychological dimension of the war to win the physical dimension.
This means you need to summon your will. Before you even walk on the court you have to accept that there is going to be a level of pain and frustration that goes beyond a normal match.
You have to take the attitude that nothing the guy does is going to surprise you. You have to expect that you may feel frustrated at times, but you have to refuse to let that carry over from one point to the next.
Decide this: you are actually going to enjoy the whole psychodrama, because it is part of the process of winning the match. You are going to stay positive no matter what—when you win points, and win you lose them—as you inevitably will.
You are going to believe that over time you will eventually win because you have the three secret strategies.
So enough pop psychology. Assuming you are prepared emotionally, what do you actually do? Let's get into the three strategies.
Modified All Court Attack
Most facile advice about beating pushers centers on playing aggressive, all court tennis. Run the pusher corner to corner. Open the court crosscourt and push the pusher off the court and then crush down the line winners.
Take those short slow balls and hit either crushing, power approaches or knife the slice hard and low to the backhand. Now pound the volley or the overhead for a winner. Mix in the serve and volley! Cut off those soft floating returns with angled winners at the net!
OK great. Do you really have the skills to play that game?
Do you truly have the technique, not to mention the nerves, to bang scissor kick overhead winners from no-man's land? How's your half volley on a return hit so softly at your feet that it seems to have the weight of a feather—and is about as easy to control? How are you at doubling the pace of the rally balls to hit approaches that can actually create pressure?
And yes! Every player should work toward mastering all those skills. Occasionally you see an accomplished, high level player rip a pusher to shreds with those tactics, so why not you?
Work to become that player, and when and if you develop the confidence, go for it. In the meantime, however, if you truly want to win, don't pretend your game is somewhere it's not.
For the average player working toward that level of skill and confidence, there is still a modified alternative that can bring tremendous success.
This is what I call modified all court attack. It could also be called rhythm rally attack. (For more on rhythm rally, a term first coined by our writer Kerry Mitchell, Click Here.)
As noted above, it's extremely difficult to increase the pace of every ball to try and hit winners, and it almost always leads to error.
But a modified alternative is to establish a rhythm rally first. This is assuming the pusher isn't hitting exclusively sky lobs, which may require using the other two strategies outlined below. He has to give you at least some balls that, while slow, you can hit with your normal strokes.
So if he is doing this, hitting mostly slow, moderate height groundstrokes, modified attack can be very effective.
Just drop into his rhythm in the backcourt exchanges. Rally at 2/3's or half your normal pace—whatever evens out the speed of the rallies so your pace is matching his.
This can actually be fun and, surprisingly, soothing. If you have relatively good strokes you realize that you aren't in danger of losing any points this way. Suddenly the pressure to crunch the first slow ball isn't pressing you the same way.
But once you have established this rhythm, start to probe. Trying working the ball crosscourt on both sides. Try getting around and hitting forehands inside out. See if one side of his ground game is noticeably weaker.
Slowly and gradually start to work the pusher side to side. Or work him further and further off the court on just one side if it is noticeably weaker. But do it in rhythm.
Try to get ridiculously far ahead in the rallies. Now try hitting forcing balls into the open court—but again don't try to artificially increase the pace, and don't panic if some of them come back.
The reality is you might have to hit the equivalent of 2 or 3 winners to get one. If your confidence goes up, you can increase your velocity, but be ready to drop the rhythm down again if necessary.
You can use this same rhythm rally principle to attack the net. Work the pusher off the court as far as possible then take an opportunity to approach down the line. If he has a major weakness attack that. You can even try approaching crosscourt to the weaker side.
Experiment to see what pattern gets you the greatest geometric advantage. Then use them over and over unless something changes.
Everything should feel like it is in slow motion. But it should feel good.
Is the pusher so far out of court that you can hit into the open court and not feel like you have to go big or hit for the lines? Can you get some fat shoulder high volleys and short overheads? Can you kick the ball high to his weaker side and get a few serve and volley points?
You should be mentally prepared to make a few errors and suffer a few passes or lob winners. But what are the percentages of these various plays?
If you can win only a few more points than you lose, then this is a winning strategy. It just may take a while. You just have to be prepared to undergo some frustration, not give up, and stay at it as long as it takes if your modified attack is working.
Believe me that winner you hit on match point is going to be one of the best feelings of your life.
The Mirror Strategy
The limitation of trying modified all court attack, of course, is that although it is played at a slower speed you still have to have all or most of the shots to make it work.
But what if you don't? Or what if you feel too much pressure even at slow speeds and start making those ridiculous and excruciating errors that the pusher lives for?
Well, here's a second approach called the Mirror. The Mirror doesn't require winning shot making. In fact it really isn't really based on tactics at all. It's based mainly on psychological warfare.
The Mirror approach starts with this affirmation. "There is no way I am going to let myself lose to this guy."
"He absolutely cannot beat me. The only way he can win is if I lose to him."
The Mirror is based on turning the pusher's psychology against him. Basically you are going to show the pusher (with the world watching) what his game is really like, by mirroring it until he can no longer stand his own image.
In some ways it's like the rhythm rally. You drop your speed until the exchanges are even going back and forth across the net. But rather than now trying to open the court, and hit winners, you simply reflect or mirror his every move.
If he hits a soft looper to the middle of the court, hit the same one back. If he hits a deep sky lob, hit one up of your own, even higher if you can.
Most players find that the mirror disturbs the pusher at some deep mental level. This can start to show quite quickly, but sometimes you have to play many points or games in mirror mode to get the desired effect.
Because in a high percentage of cases, the mirror will eventually cause a dramatic change. The pusher's humiliation, seeing his own game thrown in his face, starts to mount. And then suddenly or gradually he abandons the pushing strategy.
I've seen the scenario many times, especially coaching high school matches. My player, convinced he or she is far better than the pusher, starts out trying to hit huge winners. But as the errors mount he or she gets progressively more angry and indignant, makes even worse errors and loses the first set.
During the break between sets I let the player vents for a while about how bad the opponent is, how much they hate that style, etc, etc. Then I say this.
"Tell me if you are such a better player, then why are you losing so badly?" That usually reduces them to slience. And then I say this>
"Do you really want to win this match?" And of course the player answers adamantly "Yes!"
So I say: "Fine. I don't want to hear anymore whining. Go out there and play a frickin' 200 ball point on the first point of the second set if you have to. Show that player the mirror."
This is especially effective if, as is usually the case in high school matches, there are other players or better yet parents watching. Suddenly my player isn't falling into the trap. Instead he or she is showing the world exactly how the pusher actually plays.
The course of events is then usually something like this. That first point goes on for a long while—50 balls sometimes, or even more. The next few points can be the same--or it can continue for a few games.
But almost always a change starts to happen. Slowly, gradually, the pusher changes and starts trying to hit.
For the pusher it's great to win points by hitting a few soft balls and inducing errors. But it's another thing to have to hit two hundred moon balls to win a game, especially when your friends and relatives are getting a good look at the way you actually play.
So when the pusher starts to hit, the errors usually start to go the other way. The pusher may revert periodically, and that's fine. If that happens, just get back into mirror mode yourself.
Eventually the same effect will occur. The pusher will become emotionally discouraged and start to make more and more unforced errors. I've seen my players lose the first set time and time again, adopt the mirror strategy, and win the last two sets 6-2, 6-0.
But remember, the Mirror only works if you really want it to. You have to be willing to freely accept that you are fighting a psychological war. You have to take some pleasure in that battle, and yes, be willing to suffer for victory. For many players it's more than worth it. Others just can't go there.
Drop Shot Destruction
Which brings us to the third option. What if you have not developed the shots it really takes to play modified attacking tennis? What if you simply do not have the inclination or desire to use the Mirror to break the pusher's will?
The third major strategy I call Drop Shot Destruction. And actually this is the one that club players and high school players can often implement the most easily.
Like the Mirror it's a strategy you don't hear about. But, when executed correctly, the drop shot is one of the most aggressive, psychologically devastating, and effective shots in the game at all levels.
You see this in pro tennis. When a pro player hits a drop shot for a clean winner, he is telling his opponent that his ball lacks force, aggression, penetration, etc.
The drop shot says that he can completely neutralize the opponent's pace and drop it softly out of his reach for a winner. It's not a good feeling to see someone do that to one of your power groundstroke drives.
Wait a minute you may ask: the drop shot is also a skill shot I don't have. Isn't a great drop shot at the same level of difficulty as the attacking tennis you described above?
The answer is that a world class drop shot requires technical skill. But the reality is you don't need a world class drop shot to make this strategy work against a pusher. You really just need the ability to hit the ball short into the service box with some degree of underspin.
If you can hit drop shot winners all the better, but the real advantage here is not based on hitting winners. The point of the drop shot is to turn the slow pace of the pusher's ball into a strategic asset for you.
It's based on getting the pusher out of his or her comfort zone back there on the baseline and into a place on the court they don't like at all—the midcourt or the net.
To retrieve the ball the pusher must come forward and then they are stuck--and vulnerable in ways they are not in the backcourt.
Normally if he gets to the ball, the pusher will float it up over the net. Usually the shot will be high and soft, and often to the middle of the court and relatively short.
From this position the pusher is vulnerable to either a lob or a passing shot, and in both cases, these are not shots with a high degree of difficulty. In this situation none of your shot options require you to generate massive pace.
The passing shot doesn't need to be hard or deep. You can simply stroke the ball past the pusher on either side with a smooth, relatively low pace drive. If it bounces on the service line, it's usually a clean winner.
If the pusher tries to recover back to the baseline, it can be equally effective to simply hit the ball directly at him or at his feet. This often draws an error, or sets up an even easier shot past him on the next ball.
Don't fall into the trap of trying to blast a 90mph passing shot. It's not necessary and as noted above changing ball speed dramatically is actually very difficult, and exactly what the pusher hopes you try.
Drop Shot and Lob
The lob is equally effective in this same situation, and you don't have to have a great lob that you hit aggressively with topspin. A floating lob, or a lob with a little underspin is almost always good enough.
Remember, very few pushers have well developed net games or overheads. At most they will be scrambling to somehow stay in the point. But again, you now you have real openings to hit balls for winners.
A good rule to follow is to try for the medium paced pass if the ball is in your strike zone, and go for the lob if the ball is low or especially high.
Another important point. You don't even have to have the ability to hit a drop shot on both wings to make this strategy work.
Since in rhythm rally you aren't in danger of losing points, you can simply wait for the ball to come to your preferred side. Or, on a ball to the middle, you can even run around to hit the shot you want. Since many players actually drop the ball better off the backhand side, you can hit an inside out backhand drop shot to get the sequence started.
If the pusher tries to retaliate with drop shots or short balls of his own, no problem. Just follow your own drop shot to the net. Since the pusher has to hit up on the ball, you are very likely to get an easy volley. And again, with the pusher at the net, it is much easier to get the ball by him.
I call it this strategy Drop Shot Destruction not only because you can win points so dramatically, but because, like the Mirror, this strategy also takes a major psychological toll on the pusher.
Once again you are exposing the pusher's style to the world and taking it apart. Chasing drop shots and then getting passed or lobbed takes the fun out of the pusher mentality, which, as we have seen, is based on inflicting pain on you, not the other way around.
A few drop shots can actually have the same effect as the mirror. Rather than chasing more balls into the midcourt, the pusher may abandon ship and start to try to hit. And that usually goes down the same path as the mirror.
We talked about the three strategies independently for the sake of clarity, but they can also and often should be, mixed. You can get into a rhythm rally with a pusher, or do a little moonball mirroring until you get the right ball for modified attack. Likewise you can wait for the right ball to drop in either rhythm rally or mirror mode.
The best part is with three interrelated strategies, you don't feel helpless or that you have no options, and end up committing suicide by going down in a blaze of unforced errors. Remember the huge psychological component involved in these matches.
Be flexible and use your intuition about which option to apply when. You should be excited to have innovative and effective strategies for dealing with the pushing style, and eventually, you can develop great confidence walking on to the court to face what was previously your most feared enemy.
Realize that the first few matches you may have only partial success—winning some points or even a lot of points with one or more of these new tactical options but still losing the match. Take heart from that success if you don't initially get a victory and just stay committed. Over time these strategies can lead to some of the most satisfying wins ever!