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How to Beat a Pusher: 5 Surefire Tactics

David Ferrer backhand
Photo by: Edwin Martinez - CC BY 2.0

I would like to establish that I have all the respect in the world for pushers.  While they tend to lack firepower, or may have ugly strokes, they often persevere through sheer willpower and an I will not miss a ball attitude. That’s a tough player to beat.

So let me put it to you this way.  The pusher is the guy with plastic wrap as his shield.  If all you have are small pebbles to throw at the shield, then the pebbles will not penetrate his defense. However, if you use bigger stones or rocks, then the plastic wrap shield will be destroyed.  And if you don’t have these stronger weapons, you can throw your pebbles at a closer distance to give your shots more effect, and less time for your opponent to raise his shield.

What does all this mean?  The best ways to beat a pusher are to develop a consistent weapon and get to the net!!!

The pusher is tough to play against if you don’t have the right tools to implement the proper strategy.  Sure, he seems like he can get every ball back.  But that’s probably because your groundstrokes move slower than rush-hour traffic.

Here are my 5 surefire tactics to beating a pusher.

1. Develop a Consistent Weapon

Pick a stroke.  Any one you want.  And make a weapon out of it!  A big serve.  A huge forehand.  A down the line backhand.  You always hear someone complaining that he can’t beat a pusher.  Look, I can complain that I can’t fix my toilet (this is accurate).  But if all I have in the toolbox is a screwdriver and a wooden hammer, how could I do the job?

Instead of complaining, you need to develop a consistent weapon.  This will be the main tool that defeats the pusher.  The cannon ball that barrels through the pusher’s defense. When I play a pusher, I push (pun intended) the opponent around the court with my forehand, and at the sight of a short ball, I pummel it into a corner.

I will also often hit behind a pusher, because pushers are usually fast and will start running to the other side of the court, thinking the ball will be hit where they aren’t (gotcha!).

The superior velocity, spin, and placement of my forehand makes it a weapon. However, in the event that you can’t finish points from the baseline, you might want to…..

2. Work on your Volleys

Some pushers are not going to let you hit winners.  These advanced humanoids protect the baseline like it was their last meal or their life savings.  Or perhaps you aren’t at the stage (yet!) where you can blast serves like Milos Raonic (watch out, audience!) or hit massive groundstrokes winners.  Then you must either get to the net or tap out after a couple consecutive hundred-ball rallies against your pusher opponent.

You need to develop a good first volley that forces the pusher to hit a passing shot from an uncomfortable position.  What you can’t do is pop up or float your volley, or you set up an easy passing shot against you.  Once you get the pusher on the run, look to close into the net for a second volley that you can hopefully put away.

Remember, tennis is more like a chess match than arm-wrestling.  You don’t have to go for a first volley winner.  Set up the point and close the net.  If the pusher opts to lob you, then you need to……

3. Practice your Overheads

Especially at the lower levels, the pusher will resort to the lob.  If you are at the net and the pusher lobs you, having a good overhead is all the difference between winning the point or chucking your racquet over the fence after you smashed the first 5 overheads in the net and long, and shanked the sixth one next to the 7-11 across the street.

The most important thing for overheads is footwork.  You must quickly get into position: first with a split step and sideways turn, then sidesteps to the ball, and finally with small fast steps right until you get under the ball.  If you do not get into position, then you cannot leverage your weight properly and will be stuck hitting an awkward, weak shot.

While the footwork is paramount, as soon as you turn sideways, you must bring your racquet arm up, and non-hitting arm up to track the ball. Focus your eyes on the ball, point your left hand at the ball, load by bending your knees, and then uncoil into the ball. It’s just like the serve except with movement, and you generally want an abbreviated take back for the overhead rather than a full backswing.

Remember, you don’t always have to go for the flat boomer; use some spin and place your overhead where the pusher isn’t (or hit it straight at him if you’re angry….nevermind, not classy).  Otherwise, to beat a pusher you’re going to have to….

4. Work on your Fitness

Fitness is everything in tennis.  There is no game clock.  A tennis match would go on forever if no one could string together two measly points in a row.  And if you play a pusher, naturally you would have a longer match than against Johnny-2-Shots-and-I-go-for-a-Winner-on-the III (Johnny only I II matches last year!).

If you get tired, then your footwork intensity lessens, your technique can break down, and you lose the power and placement that you had earlier in the match.  I’ve seen many-a-pusher beat technically sound players because the latter got tired, or the pusher just plain wanted to win more than his opponent (unacceptable!).

In any case, do some on-court conditioning and your body and win-column can thank me later.  My two favorite conditioning drills are suicides (do that for a court or three; you might want to bring a trash can to puke in after a few of these), and the spider drill (place a ball on each intersecting line, begin by bringing each ball to the serve hash, and then put each ball back where they were to begin with).

I once told my tennis coach that the spider drill was too easy, so he made me do 2 in a row in front of the other players in junior camp.  I then proceeded to lay on a bench and experience that dizzy feeling you get when you bang your head into an invisible wall. Improving your fitness will help you to…….

5. Be Confident that you WILL Defeat the Pusher

Don’t psyche yourself out with such phases as “this guy gets back everything”, “i hate playing pushers”, and “what time is Family Guy on tonight”.  Ok, I know we aren’t playing the “which one of these does not belong” game, but keep yourself on track here!

As long as you have diligently practiced developing a consistent weapon, sharpened your volleys and overheads, and improved your fitness, you are in prime position to beat the pants off your pusher opponent.  “Practice breeds proficiency which in turn fosters confidence” (Jay-Z…….just kidding, that’s my quote).

You will believe in yourself and your ability to use the tools you have developed to blast through the plastic shield.

I hope that you follow my advice on how to beat a pusher.  These surefire tactics will have you dominating not just pushers, but most of your opponents, for years to come. Have fun crushing the competition, my friends.

Rock 1, Plastic Wrap 0.

Do you have any other winning strategies to defeat pushers?  Comment below!

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  1. Why the pusher beats you….!) He is faster than you, or, at least, he uses his speed better 2) He is more consistent than you 3) He is more creative than you 4) He has better defense than you 4) He is not “just getting the ball back”, he is hitting neutralizing balls that have tricky spins and changes of pace on them, and he places many of them in difficult spots 5) He notices patterns better than you, figures out your strengths, and avoids them. 6) He probably returns serve better than you, and rarely double faults 7) He is more patient than you 8) He controls his emotions better than you 9) He ANTICIPATES way better than you. 10) He CAN hit the ball with some pace once in a while 11) His tennis fitness is better than yours, and he doesn’t wear himself out with huge groundstrokes very often 12) HE IS A BETTER TENNIS PLAYER THAN YOU You think you’re a good tennis player because you took lessons and the coach told you you were improving, learning all these difficult stokes….problem is, YOU NEVER LEARNED THE BASICS….The pusher DID…he taught himself the things that a pro can’t teach you very easily…..how to make gets, how to hit on the run, how to lob well, how to make good shot selections based on an opponents skills, HOW TO ANTICIPATE…how to adjust to different kinds of spins …..The tennis pro scam is widespread…they like you to think that you can’t become a good player without their step-by-step instruction, but the self-taught players take all the trophies in local tournaments…what does that say? My suggestion…..pick the grips that seem most natural, but check to see that they are reasonable ( a lot of different kind of grips can work), especially on the backhand…you don’t want to be hitting a backhand with a forehand grip…then play with someone on your own level A LOT…have fun….branch out, play with others on your level…some a little lesser skilled, some a little better…keep playing a lot….hit against a handball court by yourself for a half hour or more a lot….when you feel like you need instruction, and online ideas don’t help, THEN go for a lesson or two…maybe to learn a topspin backhand or a slice, or an overhead, or volley skills, or a kick serve….get someone who likes to practice, and practice with them once a week…..then play in tournaments at the appropriate level…..one of the most important skills is shot selection….the ORIGINAL things you do are the things that will make you most successful….nearly every top payer has had something unorthodox about their game….Most of you are going to pick up the game as teens or adults…the highest level you will reach is probably 4.5…It is a great achievement to be a decent 4.5 tournament player…..4.0’s not bad either….3.5 is fun, too…..ENJOY!

    • Heck of a list, Carmine! Thanks for your insight! More proof that the “pusher” can be a very tough opponent and you need to have a complete game to win against them.

    • Carmine, everything you wrote can possibly be, subjectively speaking, right but there’s no way a pusher or a moonballer being a better player than an attacker tennis player who bases is game on serve – groundstrokes – volleys – half volleys – overhead shots – dropshots – feel, this kind of tennis needs a lot of technic and a lot of time to develop. If you see, I just wrote the majority of tennis strokes and a good attacker needs to use all of them, he needs to “master” all the tennis techniques and also to use is “feeling” a lot. Generenally, a pusher or a moonballer don’t. That’s a very big difference. Once again and only because of that huge difference, pushers and moonballers aren’t the better players. Attacking tennis is risky and only because of that is a way much better to play. Taking risks is what life is all about. Tennis nowadays is lacking the creative attacking players of the 90’s, because getting to the net required them to think and create different playing with different strokes and changes of pace between them. Do pushers or moonballers do that? I don’t think so. This is all a question of different doctrines, some people like to play or see defensive tennis others like attacking tennis a way better. That’s ok. What is wrong, in my opinion, is that officials almost killed the attaking tennis player on the idea that audiences where getting bored with that kind of tennis. So, now we have baseliners hitting big boring rallies that seems will never end… Please, give me a pillow to sleep or just balance tennis with some changes that will give attacker tennis players more chances to win. A fair thing to do. F1 was getting boring just because Ferrari had the hegemony in F1. The officials changed the rules and “destroyed” some of the funniest and more challenging circuits and abolished the slick tyres. After those changings, Red Bull won 3 consecutive world championships and the races start to become even more boring and less challenging for the pilots. So nowadays the officials thought it over and decided for 2017 to use slick tyres again and to change other rules to get more competiviness and more enthusiasm in the way the races are driven. The result is that F1 is getting more competitive and more fun again, like it used to be. I think it’s time for the tennis officials to think it over and be bold to change. The best tennis pros of today are all above their 30’s and the new generations aren’t producing player capable of beating them and of winning grand slams. Their tennis is predictable, less technic, less risky, less fun to see, less everyihing. It’s a way much boring than the Wimbledon final between Sampras and Ivanisevic back in 1998 when someone called it the most boring tennis game till that date. Thank you, “You” who said it back then, thank you for helping destroying the attacking tennis playing which is such a fun and inspiring way to play tennis. Lets balance things, lets make some changes. lets have more attacking playing and more net playing.

  2. Float the ball to the baseline and then come in. Pushers dont like the net — use drop shots to bring them in and then lob the ball

  3. IF the pusher is faster than you then all your suggestions do not work his anticipation is better than you are dead…I have played pushers who these traits and is not easy to beat. I have won but not every time we play….more like 3 out of 5 times I can win barely like 7-5. Could not beat like 6-0.

    • Thanks for the comment, vasu! Definitely makes it harder. The best counterpunchers have world-class speed, quickness, and change of direction. However if you develop your game/weapons and move forward to the net and can volley well, you give yourself the best chance to prevail. All the best!

  4. I have read a post by a guy labeling himself as a pusher, obviously annoyed by the people claiming to play better, stronger tennis, but still loosing “because that pusher only pushed the ball back and did nothing”. Basically, the pusher-guy said, in many more words, try to make less errors. Until you do, there is no reason for him to do anything more than return everything back.

    I believe that there are no pushers. There are guys with no backup plan, if their game plan A doesn’t work they loose, and then they bitch about the other guy being a pusher. Your game plan A might be to hit most beautiful one-handers that would make Federer applaud , but if it doesn’t work, you need to slice, slash, chop, lob, mishit, bounce a flat twohander – as far away from you as allowed in 3D…anything that will make your opponent loose that particular point. I’m a mid forties, 4.5 with solid ground-strokes, strong serve and decent power level. When I am overpowered, especially on backhand side, I become a pusher. Opponents with heavy backhand spin bully my one-hander. So, I hit high, really high (like 50+ feet high) and long balls – flat, straight up shots, I just bounce the ball up hard and run like hell to the next ball which I will also bounce up. While the ball flies high up, I huff and puff, and slowly return to the middle, then I run for the next ball, and huff and puff again, until my opponent misses, or gives me a shorter ball, which I can use. Usually they miss by their third shot and I congratulate immediately – “wow, I was so lucky this time, you really overpowered me, such a shame this went out/into the net, great play”, and I actually do mean it, but the point is mine. Sometimes, one of them does hit an excellent overhead, but its rare, and I am really happy to see that shot, if you can hit overheads consistently then I want to play a friendly with you.

    I never do this in friendly matches; in friendlies, which I loose a lot, I hit as hard as I can. Running backhand down the line was and still is my most beautiful shot. Wide fore/backhand angles are also my specialty…I can hit sharp angles and it does look nice 🙂 But in friendlies, I play for beauty, cuz that’s why I play tennis in the first place…

    Run, win points, don’t make errors, especially unforced ones. If you see a good opportunity for a heavier shot, volley, overhead – go for it. BUT its never, ever about winners, I am sorry. It is always about errors, forced and unforced. Of course, If I can beat a guy with my “nice-for-the-eye” game, I will do it. But most of the matches I play are competitive, and I rarely have the chance to shine, IE no running backhands down the line. I spin forehands, as many as needed, I chase opponents backhand, as many times as needed. If I am stronger I go for power (again not difficult shots, just more spin and power), If I am weaker, I try to neutralize opponents strength, and make him generate power. Nothing more than 2-3 feet in, keep it safe, but make the opponent work. Every ball that ends up in opponents part of the court is opponents problem. It does not have to be pretty, or strong, it has to be one more in…

    Point of this long tirade is, if you are playing against a pusher, that’s a competitive match, not a friendly warm up/training match. That means you have to find a way to dig a point. Just one point – next one. Not to look beautiful, not to demonstrate your abilities, or your power/tech level. Nope…the point is that YOU are the one who pays for the beer and condole with your opponent for the many errors he made. ….or… you can be the one who feels so proud about that down the line backhand onehander passing shot hit a bit late in the second set…If only the previous ten attempts have been that good you might have won….And I will congratulate you for that one winner….