In order to beat a pusher, you need high percentage offensive shots. Most players at the recreational level do not posses high percentage offensive shots, and yet they attempt offensive tennis anyway.
This leads to the frustration death spiral.
It feels like you’re in a winning position – you’ve got a short, high ball over the middle; all you have to do is hit one hard forehand, and maybe a volley or two, and the point is yours.
But you haven’t actually developed your flat, hard, forehand, and you haven’t actually practiced those one or two volleys you’ll have to hit. In your current state, this really isn’t a winning position, even though it feels like one. Until you train your offensive game to the point where you routinely convert these shots at a 90+% clip, you’re going to lose from offensive positions all the time.
You miss, you feel like you shouldn’t have, you get frustrated, miss some more, and then get more frustrated.
And the pusher wins 6-2 6-1, even though you were the “better player.”
Fixing Your Strategy
To beat a pusher, you need to keep the ball in play. Pushing encourages players to attempt shots that they can’t actually convert with a high enough frequency to be profitable – we need to stop that.
We’ve already discussed this concept at length, but here’s the upshot. To start, select shots that you know you can make with 80% probability or better. That means that for every 4 times you make the shot, you miss it 1 time. That’s a good ratio to start with – it’ll prevent you from missing all the time and heading down the frustration death spiral to a quick defeat.
You might have to adjust in real time – if you’ve just missed 3 of the same shot in a row, move the target in and aim higher over the net. If you’ve made 15 in a row, you can feel free to be a little more aggressive.
You Have to Practice Your Offense
If you’ve never actually practiced your offense, playing against a pusher is always going to be tough. The match is going to be tighter than you feel like it should be, and you’re going to have to play a lot safer to win than you feel like you should have to play.
But here’s the thing – what you’re seeing on court is the truth.
Until you spend the time on the practice court to actually train your offensive tennis, you should expect that your offensive tennis will be poor when playing a match.
So, in that vein, here’s the best drill for training it.
My favorite drill for practicing offensive tennis is one I call “offense-defense.” It’s useful for the defender, too, but it’s less realistic from their perspective. Where the drill really shines is training your offense.
Here’s how it works:
There’s one offensive player and one defensive player. Both players start at the center of the baseline. This is important – to maintain the realism of the drill, neither player should move from the center until the ball is fed.
The defensive player feeds the offensive player a high, short ball to either side. Then, the two players play out the point cross-court. Any shot that doesn’t land cross-court (as indicated by extending the center-service line to the baseline) is out. The doubles alleys are out.
How it Works in Practice
The player who receives the high, short ball will hit a cross-court approach shot and come to net. The defensive player can try to hit a passing shot (tough because there’s so little court), they can try to lob, they can try to keep the ball low – whatever they feel is appropriate in this situation.
Here’s the beautiful thing, though, why the drill is so helpful – both players are doing everything they can to win the point. The rules are set up such that the rallies will be longer than typical offense defense rallies, leading to more practice than would be possible under true match conditions, and yet the shots actually making up those longer rallies are still quite realistic.
This falls in stark contrast to many other drills, during which one player is not playing to win. For example, as a coach, when I feed my student volleys, I’m not trying to hit it past them. When I hit it hard at their feet so they can practice digging the ball, I’m not trying to get them to miss. While this kind of practice definitely has its place, it doesn’t translate to matches nearly as well as the practice from a drill like offense-defense does.
In Offense-Defense, both players are trying to win. That’s why the skills you train while drilling it carry over into matches.
Why not play full court?
We play half court such than an Offense-Defense rally can continue even when both players are genuinely trying to win the point. If the drill were full court, many of the points would just end with an approach shot winner – each player would hit far less balls/hour.
Playing half court beautifully solves this problem. We’re essentially playing every rally from after the time when the defender has guessed correctly where the offensive shot is going. That’s perfect, because, in a match, those are the rallies that continue anyway.
The offensive player won’t be able to blow the ball by the defender easily in half court, and will typically have to play multiple volleys in a row to win the point. This is also extremely good, because the discipline to construct a point using high percentage offensive shots is essential for quality net play.
Skills That Offense-Defense Trains
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of the amazing benefits of Offense-Defense.
On the offensive side:
- Hitting cross-court approach shots
- Moving through an aggressive shot to net
- Split stepping at the appropriate time while coming in
- Hitting an approach volley from the service line
- Choosing when to drop volley and when to drive volley
- Constructing a point with high percentage volleys
- Lob retrieval
And on the defensive side:
- Digging out a hard ball hit at your feet
- Keeping the ball low
- Reading the net player’s racket and body to anticipate the shot
- Defensive touch shots
- Immediate transition from defense to offense on a weak volley
Adjustments and Suggestions
Depending on your level, playing with the doubles alleys in may be appropriate. The goal of removing the alleys is to force the players to learn to aim their shots, and to force the rallies to continue. That said, the goal isn’t for both players to just miss and miss and miss. If you can’t consistently hit the half court target without the alley’s extra width, add it in to keep the points going.
This drill works great on both the forehand and backhand side. On the backhand side, I recommend alternating feeds between feeds that are higher and closer to the center of the court, on which the offensive player should hit an inside-out forehand, and feeds that are lower and wider, on which the player should approach with the backhand.
Mix it up – throw in the occasional drop shot approach just like you would in a match. Don’t treat this as a “drill” in the sense that shots like drop shots, or slices, or trick shots are inappropriate. You’d never hit a drop shot while grinding racket fed forehands, but it makes perfect sense to hit them in offense-defense, especially if your opponent is cheating way back in the court.
Because your goal is to win the points. That’s what makes the practice translate. That’s what makes the drill work.
Offense-Defense Actually Translates
I prefer not keeping score during Offense-Defense so that players don’t feel pressured into avoiding the very offensive shots they need to practice. If you can only hit, say, your flat approach forehand at 50% right now, this is the time to get it to 80%, not to abandon it because it’s too inconsistent.
That said, decide what you want to work on – the shots you’re going to use that are not match ready – and then genuinely compete from there. Do that, and the practice will translate to matches in a way that so much practice doesn’t.
As you run up for a short ball in a match, it’ll finally feel familiar – you’ll finally feel confident, like you’ve done this 100 times before, because, after drilling with offense-defense, you will have done it 100 times before. As you split step for your volley, as you move in and strike the volley, and then as you shuffle back, line up the overhead, and blast the final winner past your opponent – each of those shots will have been practiced.