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How to beat a tennis pusher

Competing against the pace-less tennis pusher

A tennis pusher is a player whose general game mentality is on the defensive side. Although in the tennis community, identifying a pusher is pretty straightforward, in reality a pusher is hard to define. Tennis pushers usually focus on just keeping the ball in play and trying to elicit errors from their opponents. That “pushing the ball back” focus is what has earned them their nickname. Their game is often not fun to watch, as they take the pace off of any ball they can. Lobs, junk balls, sliced shots, underspin and sidespin are some of their trademarks tactics. Because this type of player can be difficult to beat at low level tournaments, pushers are dreaded opponents. But not every defense-minded player that is hard to beat is actually a pusher. And there’s no such thing as a pusher at the top level of tennis, in my opinion.

That being said, a tennis pusher is not a bad tennis player. In fact, this is a misconception guaranteed to make your life difficult walking into a court against them. When I started competing, my very first match was against -what I would now consider- a very skilled pusher. It was on a clay court too, which is probably a pusher’s favorite surface. My opponent was crafty with the slice shot and could generate good angles, albeit with zero pace. Her slice rarely sat up high enough for me to hit through and she also used the lob effectively, whenever I tried to approach the net. On top, unlike the usual pusher, my opponent was quite good at the net herself –and my passing shots weren’t exactly top notch at the time.

Although I had a solid lead at the beginning, I ended up losing that match because I was quickly mentally and physically exhausted and she wasn’t. For a while, I was angry and disappointed, but instead of letting the frustration take over, I decided to do something different. I started training with a tennis pusher in order to understand how I could overcome this challenge. Here is what I’ve learned.

How to beat a pusher in a tennis match

When competing against a pusher in a tennis match, there are a lot of things you don’t want to do. Particularly if, like me, you are a baseliner who likes pace and can’t wait to finish a point with a winning shot. During practice you learn how to wait for the short ball you can hit through for a winner. Against a pusher, almost every ball seems like an easy winner. But it’s not. So don’t try to hit every ball hard, just because it has no pace.

Secondly, you don’t want to rely on the power of your shots. Sure, you will need to generate a lot of your own power when receiving balls with little pace. But there is a very fine line between returning fast balls that land deep into the court and over-hitting. Against a pusher, you’ll need to tone down the power and use a variety of shots to throw them off.

Finally, you don’t want to start thinking too much about the match. Against this type of player, there is usually plenty of time for your mind to take over and start playing tricks, almost in every shot. Doubting yourself, changing your mind mid-point or blasting frustration shots all over the place is not a winning strategy. If this starts to happen, soon enough you’ll find yourself wondering whether you actually want to win or give up.  So let’s see a few things you should be doing in order to beat a tennis pusher.

Strategy and tactics when playing against a tennis pusher

Here are a few things you can keep in mind when playing against this type of player. Your strategy will probably need to be adjusted throughout the game, as your opponent will likely read your tactics. However, following these simple tips can help you start winning more matches against them.

  1. Accept that the pusher is actually a good and effective tennis player

Stop thinking you shouldn’t lose from this ugly playing opponent because your game is so superior and better-rounded. You are not necessarily a better tennis player. In fact, often times pushers are great at picking up patterns and figuring out what you do well on the court. Then they use that intelligence to neutralize your weapons and they can do that more effectively than you think. This also helps them anticipate very well because they know they need to be one step ahead of you to stand a chance of getting that last ball back. Once you’ve showed the respect that is due, there is nothing to prove, but that you have the game to win a tennis match in the balance.

  1. Prepare yourself mentally for a long match and be patient

If you go into a match against a tennis pusher thinking you can overpower and bagel them in no time, you’re in for a surprise. This type of opponent loves long rallies and will do anything they can to make each point as long and painful as possible. Arm yourself with patience and accept that you might have to play “ugly” for your standards to win this match. The moment you lose your grip and start going for your big shots is the moment the pusher has been waiting for. They thrive on your mental game falling apart and they are very good at picking up signs of despair. Unforced errors are your biggest enemy here. Since a pusher can’t easily force an error off their opponent, it really comes down to you holding your nerve.

  1. Work on your fitness and footwork a lot

Slow balls and junk balls with no pace need several extra small adjustment steps, to position yourself properly and hit through them. Lobs will get you far behind the baseline and you’ll need to recover quickly, because you rarely get 2 identical shots from a tennis pusher that is not great. Even worse, the balls you’ll be receiving will likely have lots of sidespin and underspin, bounce high up or skid low. Imagine that happening hundreds of times in a single match. If you haven’t worked on your fitness and footwork, you’ll get tired quickly. Fatigue is not a great advisor, particularly when you’re inclined to hit hard. Keep those feet moving and don’t get lazy. As the match progresses, this will become increasingly difficult, as slow and long rallies can practically hypnotize you. Wake yourself up and remember that your opponent will also get tired eventually.

  1. Move your pusher opponent vertically on the court too

Trained to retrieve many balls, pushers are very good at moving horizontally on the court, but they are usually not as good moving vertically. This can be either because they rarely receive short balls, or because they don’t trust their volley skills. Additionally, their approach shots might be well-placed, but they’re usually not powerful or fast enough to cause you trouble. Either way, a pusher can get uncomfortable when faced with a ball that needs them to be aggressive. So try moving your opponent back and forth instead of just left to right and be ready to either try a passing shot past their weaker side, or lob them. If they’re not great at the net overall, chances are their overhead shots will be weak too.

  1. Remember to have fun and enjoy the match

The fun part about playing against a pusher is that there is always that one more ball you get to hit. That one more chance to prove you are the better player and get the point. You love tennis, right? Well you can enjoy long rallies against this type of player and savor every minute on the court. Matches against pushers can also help you develop mental toughness, as you will need plenty of it to come out victorious. Overall, just think of the pusher as a challenge you need to eagerly accept and overcome, if you are to truly play your best tennis eventually.

Featured image by tenisenelatlantico on Pixabay

P.S. Here are two videos which have helped me in my conquest of beating the tennis pusher:

Blair Henley is great at explaining tactics, worth watching some more of her videos.

And Brady of Daily tennis lessons has created a series of videos with tips for beating pushers.

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