We all have been there. Playing someone that is quite content with hitting the ball back with no pace. Even when they are given a shorter ball to attack they will likely stay at the baseline and continue their frustrating (yet effective) tactic of never missing. How do you beat such a player? Through my experience, this is the ultimate test in someone's ability to compete. If a player can beat a "pusher" he or she is on their way to the next level for tennis. Remember pushers exist in every level of tennis so it's important to have a game plan against such a player no matter what skill level you are at. So let's get you there with some tips!
The Mindset Of A Pusher
It's important to try to understand why your opponent would want to play so conservatively. While I cannot give specific answers to your opponent, there are some that are usually the case. Here they are:
1. They do not have a weapon. And they know it. This keeps them from winning any other way so it is their best bet to winning a match.
2. They can focus for a long period of time. Pushers need to be resilient and have a "steady and consistent course of action." Meaning they might not win all the "flashy" points where they end in a spectacular winner but they will win when the point ends in an error because they aren't the one making it. At the recreational level, this is how you can determine who will win most matches. Make the least amount of errors and you will win. Pushers know this.
3. They are athletic and/or in good shape. They may not have the best strokes but they can move well and chase down shots. This allows them to win matches where they are outgunned. Movement kills in tennis and someone that can chase down a lot of balls is going to have a lot of success in the sport.
4. They understand the rules of the game. The most simple way of describing how to win at tennis is to say that the player that hits the ball in last wins.
5. It's more fun. When I see a match against a pusher vs an aggressive player, I can almost feel the tension from the aggressive player. They have high expectations of themselves to play at an unrealistic skill level. The pusher is just having fun keeping the ball in play and putting less emphasis on how they are hitting the ball but rather on how they are moving to the ball. Players on the other end rarely are enjoying themselves as they play high risk tennis and make errors that frustrate themselves.
Although the information above is not going to help much with your game plan it's important to at least know where they are coming from and also to respect their position. I think we tend to think down on "pushers" while in fact they are the ones that win more often then not. It's much easier to discredit your opponent by saying you didn't "play well" to win. The pusher will listen, nod and smile knowing that they will be happy to play again knowing they will most likely win the rematch.
Best Methods On Beating A Pusher
1. Know The Situation. When I struggled against a pusher I felt an immense pressure to hit great shots every time. The main reason was that the ball coming at me had so little on it that I almost felt obligated to go for my shots. The pressure I put on myself would just compound with every missed shot. I would start pressing even more which did not end well. Instead, ask yourself this; "can my opponent hurt me in a rally?" The answer (if you're playing a pusher) is most likely "no." This means you can hit a few shots back in a rally knowing your opponent will be giving you another similar "easy" ball to hit back again. Knowing this gave me the right mindset that I did not have to hit great shots every time. In fact when I hit short balls accidentally my opponent would just hit it back at me like normal, meaning I could miss a little short and not worry about being put into a defensive position. This took a lot of pressure off of my strokes and allowed me to be patient for the ball that I knew I could do something with, which might be a few shots into the rally.
The "situation" is also related to you. If you have a realistic idea of what your shots are, this will help you decide what shots you should be going for and what shots you should not. For example, some players go for way too much pace on their forehand when their form doesn't allow them to. Just like a "pusher," it's important to know your own limitations.
2. Know The Conditions. When it is warm out, the ball will bounce higher and allow an aggressive player to hit a ball with more pace and allow the ball to bounce higher. When I played a friend of mine who had a "pusher" game style, I would win quite easily in the summer. My shots had too much pace and bounced too high for him to effectively neutralize them. On the other hand, in the winter it was a different story. The balls would be slower and bounce lower, allowing my friend to have an easier time handling my shots. This changed my mindset as I had to be more conservative and wait for the right ball before pulling the trigger.
3. Get Them Uncomfortable. I found that the shorter the ball the more the "pusher" would miss. This puts less pressure on hitting good shots and actually rewards you for hitting short balls. Deep and hard shots to your opponent will only allow them to do what they do even better as you supplied the pace to them. Get them uncomfortable by hitting short balls, lobs, slices, etc. Mix it up and keep them off balance!
4. Work on your approach shots. Start by being conservative with approach shots until you get more comfortable with them. If you miss too many of them your opponent will have even less pressure in keeping the ball deep as a short ball now allows him or her to win the point. The biggest problem I see with the approach shot is how much the player tenses up while going for the shot. There is way too much pressure put on the approach shot for players that miss these. Just relax and know that any ball you hit deep (or even a drop shot) will be effective against them. No need to hit a winner. A forced error or an easy volley/overhead is just as good of an outcome from your approach shot.
All the pros are in one way or another a "pusher" during their matches. They know it's really hard to hit a ball by someone at the baseline so they continually keep the ball deep and wait for a mistake from their opponent. A mistake at the pro level is a short ball and it should be at the recreational level too.