Every sport has its fundamentals. Football: establish your running game. Baseball: you must have pitching for all nine innings. And tennis? It's really quite simple: get the ball over the net.
Even if you're new to tennis, you have no doubt already heard about the pusher.
This term describes a consistent and dreaded opponent who has plagued many a recreational singles player over the years.
Pushers are known for chasing down every ball you hit and getting it back over to your side of the court, making you hit the ball one more time, then again one more time, and yet again one more time.
They are very consistent and usually hit a medium pace, mid-court ball that causes their opponent to get frustrated, then over-hit and make many unforced errors.
I have witnessed a very good recreational player throw his entire tennis bag, rackets and all, into the garbage can and stomp out of a weekend tournament after losing to one of these pusher-type opponents.
Let's take a careful look at this rather intelligent tennis player, who, either knowingly or unknowingly, has discovered the main fundamental in winning recreational tennis: get the ball over the net.
First, it's good to understand that tennis is very much like a chess match when both players are at the same NTRP level of play (see the USTA.com website for the player rating system).
There are moves in the game of chess, and there are counter-moves. (Avid tennis players would do well to make chess their second-favorite pass time when they are not on the practice court to help develop instinctive pre-hitting decision making skills.)
The U.S. Chess Champion Bobby Fischer wrote a book about his 60 most memorable games and his middle-game play strategy that is well worth studying for both the tennis and chess player alike for move/counter-move strategies.
Next, it's good to understand that hitting the ball into the net (and giving away free points) is the most common error in tennis. The next most common error is hitting the ball long or out of the back baseline.
The tennis pusher is counting on you to lose patience and tighten up as the match wears on and make these two most common mistakes. If you are faced with an opponent like this, you must first accept that you will be on court for longer than a usual match. You must also have confidence in your athletic ability and your fitness level to wait it out and stay engaged in the match, which is no doubt dragging on longer than you had planned.
This is not an easy task. I myself have had to endure through matches that caused me to question why I was playing the sport. I went home, at times, questioning my resolve to ever play competitive tennis again.
I call this kind of thinking momentary mental resignation, and it even affects the pros.
Fourth round, Wimbledon, 2001, Pete Sampras, is still very much in the five-setter against Roger Federer, but, on match point, Pete serves to Roger's forehand (big mistake). I have studied this match over and over and concluded that Pete simply ran out of drive, motivation or the will to win.
If you must face the dreaded pusher, in a tennis match, pause and reflect on the legendary speech Winston Churchill gave, "... never give in, never, never, never ..."
Along with your mental resolve, here are a few practical tips to over-come the dreaded pusher:
- Watch the ball: When you are attempting to hit a slower-paced, higher-bouncing, mid-court ball, your timing and the moment of impact between your racket strings and the ball must be even more precise. Watch the ball more closely than usual and resist the instinct to sense what your opponent is doing or where he/she is positioned in the opposite court.
- Be patient: Be willing to stay in a long rally and be selective about when to make an approach shot and move forward toward the net. Be prepared to hit many overhead-smash shots as pushers tend to lob.
- Draw them into the net: Most pushers lack volley skills and do not like coming to the net. Use the drop-shot often to get them out of their comfort zone but be sure to make your drop shot right in front of you. Do not attempt a cross-court drop shot, always keep the ball low and in front of you so they have to hit up or try to lob over you. You can hit right back to their feet or smash it for a winner.
Have you wondered about when you should approach the net? That question will be answered in the next column.