The word PUSHER is often uttered with disdain and a snarl among junior tennis players. It is the supreme insult to hurl at another player, as in, “I can’t believe I lost to a pusher! I must totally stink at tennis!”
But, really, what is a pusher? And is it such a bad thing to be called one?
According to coach Don Petrine, pushing is a style that one encounters in developmental tennis (and perhaps senior and club tennis). “A pusher uses all your pace on the ball, never generating their own pace, parasitic in nature, and uses it against you. A pusher never tries to end the point with an offensive shot; they just use your pace and hit high percentage shots until you hang yourself, go insane, or make an unforced error. They are usually fast and love to run and have the personality of a barnacle – you have to grind and scrape them away.” The bottom line, Don says, is “Pusher” is just a name for someone steadier than you are. But, he feels that Pushers are the best learning experiences for young players because playing against such steadiness forces kids to learn how to develop points.
A GRINDER on the other hand is a player who stays in the point as long as necessary, hitting the ball with varying pace and spin, moving his opponent around the court, waiting for the opportunity to finish it with a winner, then executing that winning shot with confidence and precision. Grinders have learned how to work the point then go for the winner on the right ball. They will have practiced that moment thousands of times before; they will have missed plenty, but they will have executed more times than not. They carry that memory with them so when faced with the opportunity to hit a winner in a match situation, they deliver.
Coach Chuck Tomlin says, “If a player can know how to grind without pushing, then execute when his grinding opens up opportunities, then he can be special!”
What’s really the difference between the two? Tennis Dad and former soccer professional, Phil Wright, says that in tennis in general, whatever the age of the player, “a pusher is a player with poor technique who flat/dead rackets balls back, high and mostly deep but without playing a proper shot. They feed off the pace of their opponent not because they want to but because it is the only thing they can do. They are sometimes clever tactically but they take zero risk and never go for winners. They can be any age but in junior tennis and in club tennis it gets results. In elite tennis it gets stuffed.”
Coach Tomlin offers this advice to juniors who are facing a so-called pusher across the net: (1) expect to work your patterns all the way thru to the finish, since the pusher won’t miss halfway thru the pattern like most opponents; and (2) they are not as likely to hurt you with their shots, so you don’t need to be as aggressive with pace or placement to keep them from taking control of the point. Use the pace and targeting that is very comfortable for YOU. Chuck feels that “every player should be able to grind when needed, and it should be the foundation of their game really.”
So, since most tennis matches are won by getting one more ball in the court than your opponent, the next time you hear a kid refer to the player who just beat him as a pusher, remind him that the pusher found a way to win and move onto the next round! And, maybe that pusher is, in reality, just a really effective grinder.