Monday, June 11, 2012


In tennis, a "pusher" is a pejorative term for someone who gets to everything and returns it, keeps the ball in play, but doesn't hit winners.  AKA a "human backboard."

I've been accused of being a pusher.  In some contexts I am.  I'm definitely a defensive player and I do get to everything.  But given the opportunity, I will come to the net and hit winners.  I just often don't get that opportunity against power hitters.

I'm a different kind of pusher: I push people to their limit.

Then I lose.


It happened again this week.

In my first singles league match of the summer outdoor season, I played a young kid just out of college who was playing in his first adult league match.  He'd played in high school and hit the ball very hard, and it was all I could do to keep up with him.  But keep up with him I did, in a first close first set.  Although I had two chances to win it (I was up 5-4, 40-15), I blew it and he squeaked by me, 7-5.

The first set lasted longer than an hour on a hot humid summer night.  I could already tell that he was having problems.  He took a really long break between sets to stretch his legs.  Then, as the second set continued, with lots of long points and games, he took longer and longer breaks on the changeovers, always stretching his legs.  

We were tied at 3-3 in the second set when I finally was able to wear him down enough to win three straight games.  Near the end he had several instances of leg cramping. I won the set 6-3, so we'd have to play a third set.  By this time the guy was in real agony.  He spent the entire (long) break between sets sitting down and stretching his legs. I gave him much longer than he was entitled to.  He could barely walk and I thought there was no way he'd be able to compete in the third set. I asked him if he was okay to play and he said yes.  

In lieu of a full third set-- which I most surely would have won because his legs would have fallen off-- we played a 10-point tiebreak, which follows the rules of this league.  (Actually, the rules were not entirely clear.  During the indoor season we do play 10-point tiebreaks, but our league coordinator did not actually spell this out for the summer league, so it was up to our discretion.  Before the match even started, we both agreed to play a 10-point tiebreak if it came to that.)

He jumped out to a 5-1 lead and never looked back. He won 10-5, and I was so frustrated I threw my racket against the fence.  I was really annoyed during the tiebreak because he took so much time between points, then ran around and bashed these winners against me.  Every time we'd have a long point, he'd have to stop and stretch a long time after it.  My best chance at beating a power hitter is to make them work really hard early in a match so that they don't have enough energy later.  Early on he was really crushing the ball and I was getting everything back, so my strategy was working.

It doesn't seem fair that late in the match he can take all the time he needs between points without a penalty.  You're only allowed so much time between points/games/sets.  And fitness is part of the game.  But I didn't want to be a jerk.  The guy was in real pain.  

After the match he pretty much crumpled to the ground and could hardly walk.  I would feel bad for him, but fuck him-- he just beat me.  I was tired too, but I was a tired loser. If he was in so much pain he shouldn't have tried so hard to beat me.  He's almost half my age, I'm not going to feel guilty for being in better shape. 

I looked at my phone.  We had played for 2 hours and 45 minutes.  Final score: 7-5, 3-6, 1-0 (10-5)       


I like to joke that my purpose in tennis is to push people to their limit and then lose to them.  But this isn't funny anymore.  I'm tired of losing.  

Similar incidents have happened several times before.  People cramp up against me, I give them more time than they're entitled to because I'm nice, and then they end up beating me.  I know it's my own fault for thinking they're done when they're not.  I let down my guard and let them back into the match.  I choke.

It's really frustrating, and I just don't know how to fix this.  If my strategy is to wear people down, but then I can't finish them off when they get wore down, what good is it? 

Somehow I have to push through this.  Then I can be another kind of pusher. 


UPDATE: After thinking more about this phenomenon, I realize that the problem isn't that I always choke when I wear people down.  People often fade against me late in the match.  The problem is those rare instances when my opponent cramps up when he gets tired, instead of just missing shots.  That's how a tired opponent is supposed to act!  It's these stubborn people who don't show the normal symptoms of tiredness.  Still, I should be able to beat someone who's cramping up that bad.  In the end, it's still my fault.

UPDATE #2: I played another marathon match a week later.   Two and a half hours, pushed my opponent to the limit, but lost a close one in the end.  Final score: 7-5, 6-7(2), 1-0 (10-8). This opponent didn't cramp up on me, but also didn't fade like I wanted him to.  One interesting thing, though, is that he told me afterward that I hit more winners against him than most people do.  No one's ever told me THAT before.  A "pusher" definitely doesn't hit winners, so I must not be a very good one.   

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