Singles Clinic, Part 3
Game Plans:
Beating Pushers, Killers and Those In Between

Names have been changed to protect the guilty, but I shall tell you the story of Rick Braden, a boy who was king--of pushers.  A boy who created scars so deep, to this day, over forty years since I faced him opposite the net, I seethe in anger and frustration.  Rick owned one shot, the lob.  He even lobbed his serve, mooning it over with no pace.  After his serve, or at any point, all he would hit is a lob, shot after shot after shot.  If you played him, you had to let your parents know that you wouldn't be home for dinner, or for that matter, a week or so.  The match went on and on, and at no point would Rick take anything like a chance, hit the ball hard or go for a placement.  No, he just lobbed.  As well, Rick was a nerdy kid, a brainiac who would have worn a pen protector with his tennis shirt, except that the team shirts came with no pockets.  But there Rick sat, nerd and lob king, anchoring the sixth and final spot on the varsity which I desperately wanted to make as a high school freshman. 

Full of spunk and attitude, I thought I'd trounce Rick Braden and assume my rightful place.  I tried to drive my way through him, but my ground strokes hit the fences.  From the baseline, I tried to put overheads away, but he just trotted over and put up another lob which I smashed into the net.  I tried to rocket my returns on those pushy serves of his, but those went into the fence, too.  Driven mad, I resorted to lobbing his lobs, but he was a more accomplished lobber, by far.  I never beat him.  I don't think the varsity players could beat him, either.  The coach put Rick in the last place because he was too embarrassed to play him higher.  I was Rick's biggest cheerleader when he graduated and, as a college freshman, went off to become president of Harvard or invent nuclear fusion or whatever he did, as long as it wasn't on a tennis court.

Everyone's played a version of Rick Braden, a pusher that should be easy to beat but who baits us into over-hitting until the pile of unforced errors we make becomes a Mt. Everest of a loss.  And everyone's played the opposite, gun slingers with reputations for just killing the ball that seem more than justified when we get on the court and see the balls whizzing by us. Big serves, big forehands, big everything.  Big shakes when the match starts and we fear being pounded into a puddle on the court.  This tip is going to explore options for beating both types of opponents, and stress the importance of coming up with a game plan for all your singles matches.

Attacking the Pusher

When ball after ball comes so slowly over the net, we just know we have an offensive opportunity.  After all, our usual experience against opponents that actually hit the ball is the opposite.  We're rushed by the pace of their shots, pinned back behind the baseline by their depth, run off the court by their angles.  But the pusher's shots just float over and hang there, ripe and ready to be killed.  And there lies the problem.  If we think that we can win when we're forced to increase the pace of the ball on every shot, we're sorely mistaken.  That means that we're trying to blast the ball by our opponent, when his slow-paced moon balls and lobs give him all day to stroll back to the middle of the court, in good position.  That's why pushers win; they bait opponents into over-hitting.

Hone Your Angles  But are we wrong that those slow balls don't offer an offensive opportunity?  Not at all.  Not by a long shot.  In fact, that pun is intended, for it's the short, angled shot that floated balls offer us as an offensive possibility.  When balls are driven deep and hard at us, we're forced to play them from behind the baseline, an unlikely position from which to try to command a sharp angle back to our opponent's side of the court.  But a softer ball, even if hit deep, allows us to move in to attack it either on the bounce or the fly.  And the privilege of hitting from inside the baseline is that it brings us closer to our opponent's court and with a contact point that is often well above the net.  Ooh la la.  Attack the pusher with sharp, angled cross-courts, targeting the intersection of his service line and sideline.  Your shots don't have to hit the sideline, just enough to the edge of the court where you can get the pusher out of position and on the run.  If you can chip the ball, underspin is a terrific way to shape this placement.  If not, just take the ball early and brush up it with a light hand.  Timing and touch are everything.  Attack the pusher with your feet and your placements, not your power.  If you're returning, do it right off the serve, legally obliged to be short and coming at you with no pace, at all.  Take it early.  Angle it off.

Naturally, the pusher, once taken off the court will do what she always does:  lob.  No problem.  You want this.  Now's the time to move in and take the ball on the fly.  You don't have to kill it; just angle it to the other side.  And if you don't put it away, don't bother advancing closer than the T toward the net.  She's just going to lob again, right?  Camp out at the T and hit another angle to the other side.  See the pusher run.  Fun, fun, fun.

Yo-Yo Your Shots  Another way to counter the pusher is by using drop shots.  The pusher's softer shots allow us to move inside the baseline for replies, and that position makes a drop shot safer to hit.  The intent here is not to win the point outright, just to drag the pusher off the baseline and up to net where his lobs are useless and, likely, he's not as comfortable.  Once you force him up to net, you've got some choices.  Bang your drives at him and see how capable he is with his volleys.  Likely, since he's camped his whole life at the baseline, volleys aren't his favorite things.  But I like to give the pusher a taste of his own medicine.  Once I have him struggling forward to reach my drop shot, I lob him.  It's what I call yo-yo tennis:  drag him in, push him back.  Revenge can be a real pleasure.  However, for this tactic to work, you need to pick the right time to hit your drop shot.  It isn't when the pusher has you at your back fence, running to retrieve a deep lob.  You need a short ball to hit a short ball.  The return is an excellent time for this, but otherwise you need to be patient and wait for the pusher to let you move inside your baseline for the attempt.  Note again, though, that this gambit relies on touch and command of the front of the pusher's court, not blasting the ball by him.

Take the Ball On the Fly and Get Thee To Net  There's no rule that says ground strokes have to be hit after the bounce.  And if you're tired of climbing the fence behind you to reach the pusher's lobs, consider moving forward to play them before the bounce.  Since you're at the baseline, these strokes are not volleys but your normal drives.  By moving forward and playing moon balls and lobs on the fly, you're able to control the elevation of contact, in your strike zone, and you're not constantly moving back and making your court longer.  As well, if the pusher is using a lob to create time so that she can recover to the middle of her court, by taking the ball early, you cut down her recovery time.  And once you get a taste of how successful it can be to move forward and attack the ball early, why not jump in the deep end and actually learn how to play the net?  Many singles players, including professionals, don't know the net from the capitol of Zaire, but if they played more pushers, they would.  Simply put, if you have a good overhead, you'll beat the pusher every time.  If you can take a high volley from the T and angle if off, the pusher doesn't stand a chance.  If pushers are beaten by moving forward into the court and creating short angles, the net is the obvious and best place to be.  You may not be able to advance past the T if the pusher's lobs are deep and accurate, but the T is close enough to angle the balls for winners and stop this lobbing nonsense!

Diffusing the Killer

It's not just a guy thing.  Challenged by a player's pace, our first instinct is to blast the ball right back, and women fall prey to this temptation, too.  Really, it's a kid thing.  "I can run faster than you."  "No, you can't!"  "Yes, I can."  Etcetera.  And if you can hit as hard as your opponent, and you can beat him at that game, go for it.  After all, what's more satisfying that a full-fledged firefight where your racquet is still smoldering as you holster a win?  But what if, as you try to beat him with pace, you begin to hit crazy unforced errors, the kind that make you wonder if an alien has taken over your body, because those shots just aren't you?  Recognize the feeling?  You've taken yourself out of your game and you're going to burn your way to a loss.

It's not just recreational players that succumb to this.  I grew up watching Jimmy Connors dominate men's tennis, a guy who set an entirely new standard for aggressiveness on the tennis court.  He took gentlemanliness right out of the game, hitting every ball early and just as hard as he could, damned-near snarling as he did so.  Everyone tried to keep up, but Connors was better at it than anyone else.  He ruled as number one for years.  However, in the early 70's, Arthur Ashe faced him in the finals of Wimbledon.  Ashe was a tall, wiry guy, but he had weapons, too, particularly a big forehand and serve.  Yet he refused to get into a firefight with Connors, choosing instead to chip his ground strokes at half-speed, short to the T.  Forced to hit from underneath the height of the net, low and early in his court, Connors' great pace was ineffective and neutralized.  And Jimmy Connors had no other game.  Ashe won.

Slow Down, Pardner  Watch how Federer handles Roddick's serve to his backhand.  He just chips it back, with a short backswing, but keeping it as deep as he can.  It's like he's saying, "Okay, Andy, you've got yourself one hell of a serve, but let's start the point now."  The difference between the pace of the serve and the floated return is like someone put the match on slow motion, all in one split second, but that's exactly what Federer accomplishes.  By diffusing the pace of the serve and floating it back, he changes the timing and tone of the exchange.  Roddick can choose to amp it up, if he wants, and rifle a forehand, and can Federer could blast one of his own, or he could choose again to slow things down.  The point it, you need to mix it up against a killer.   Chances are, if you hit hard you're only going to make him happy. Make him supply his own damn pace.  Change it up and keep him off balance.

Low Ball/High Ball  Another great way to diffuse the pace of a killer is to change her sight lines.  Make her hit high; make her hit low.  I've already mentioned Ashe's strategy against Connors at Wimbledon.  Use chips to keep the balls low to the court and at half-speed.  This shot is particularly effective if you're up against a killer using a full western grip.  The extreme closed face of this grip can be decidedly uncomfortable on balls low to the court, whereas it's great on balls up around the shoulers.  Don't please that killer, growling on the other side of the net.  Bend her over and make her grab balls low to the court; it's hard to drive balls with any kind of pace when you're regularly forced to hit beneath the level of the net. 

And what about floating some moon balls?  You bet!  You don't have to become a card-carrying pusher to add this strategy to your game when you need it.  You can bet the house that the killer opposite you likes hard-hit balls; that's his game.  And it's so much easier to hit hard when you're given ammunition.  But if your shots regularly are sent back with less pace, the killer is going to have to work harder to pick it back up.  And if your floated shots have good depth, you can push the killer behind his baseline.  The added length of the court will also slow his balls down.  Don't be ashamed of winning.  Floating your shots is a tactic, not a lifestyle.  Take the air out of the ball and strangle your opponent's pace.  And, if you then get a sitter from a weakened killer, drive hard!

Come Up With a Game Plan and Stick To It

One other great memory I have of Jimmy Connors was an interview with him just after a win.  The commentator asked if he knew who he was playing in the next round, and Connors said no.  The announcer told him, and asked, "What will your strategy be?"  Connors looked momentarily confused by the question, but then replied, "Well, I'm just going to play my game."  He wasn't making any deferential comment about the quality and threat of his upcoming opponent.  Instead, he was saying that he didn't bother with strategy; he considered himself the best, and it was the other guy's problem to figure out how to beat him, a Planet Tennis attitude if I ever heard one!

However, if you come from Planet Earth, you're going to need strategy to win, and it's going to have to be flexible, changing with your changing opponents.  Too often, students get stuck with an image of their game that they're reluctant to change, even if it means losing!  You know what I'm talking about.  If you think lobbing the ball or floating or the ball or hitting a drop shot is morally beneath you, that it will undermine your reputation as a stud and forever taint you in the eyes of your admiring public, you need to rethink things.  Bottom line, the W is so much more fun to hold than the L.  Do anything you can, except cheat, to win.  Think of yourself as a painter and your palette is all the shots you're capable of hitting.  If the moon ball lifts you to victory, that's the picture you paint for that day.  Next day, you might be serving and volleying!

Study your opponents if you can.  If he's got a weak backhand, hit every damn ball to his backhand--every one!  If she's overweight or slow, the drop shot is your best buddy, the love of your life.  If he just likes to block his returns back, serve hard and take the net.  If she's got a wristy forehand, serve wide on the deuce court and tempt her to yank it back cross-court.  If he's short, slow your drives down so you can loop them high over the net and over his shoulders.  If she's tall, chip it, and drag her nose down to the court. 

And if you don't have a chance to observe your opponent before the match, use the warm-up to come up with a plan.  Where are his mistakes on the ground strokes?  Over-hit forehands?  Fine.  Don't be afraid to feed shots to what he imagines is his strength. Does she come up to net and ask for volleys and overheads?  No?  Terrific.  She hates the net; drag her up there with short chips and drop shots every chance you get.  Does he seem slow?  Nice!  Use your angles, not your pace to break him down.  Is she one of those high-energy girls that wants everything to happen fast and faster?  Oh, good.  Take your time between points, and lengthen the rallies.  Drive her right up the fence.

Most importantly, stick with your plan as long as it's winning.  Too often players abandon their strategy if they break out into a lead, figuring that they've got their opponent beaten and can sprint to the finish line.  They hit harder, go for bigger and better shots, trying to put the match away.  Kinda dumb.  Make your opponent come up with an answer.  Be relentless.  Keep your foot right on his neck.  There's an old adage in sports:  never change a winning game.  It's great advice, though surprisingly difficult to achieve.  It's so, so tempting to try and do more!  Do more only if your strategy ceases to work.  Maybe your pounding of your opponent's backhand finally warms it up, and the unforced errors are dwindling there.  No problem.  Open your eyes.  There's going to be another weakness, another strategy to exploit it.  Don't lose because you run out of ideas.

c Keith Shein

Next Tip:
Singles Clinic, Part 4
Practice Drills