I hit a low-risk rally shot that nevertheless demonstrated a certain facility with the racket. Medium pace, deep, enough topspin to keep it inside the lines. My opponent shuffled to his right, dropped the racket face, and delivered a soft uppercut to the yellow orb. The ball floated skyward, suspended aloft in a late-spring zephyr. I retreated. I waited for the lob to bounce, then raked up the back of the ball with vicious topspin.
My opponent cut underneath my shot with a lazy slice. I stumbled, raced forward to set up for the mid-court ball. I cocked my forehand, ready to rip. As the ball collided with the court, its backspin counteracted its forward momentum. I swung. The ball’s spin had disrupted my timing. I tried to slow down the racket, applying a death grip to the handle. I punched it long. It was happening again.
David and Goliath
This season, this blog has chronicled three painful losses to guys who could be described as pushers. The term is generally used to demean an opponent, implying that, if he played the game the way it’s supposed to be played, you’d pulverize him with your vast repertoire of power and finesse.
I don’t use the term that way. I respect the pusher. I fear him.
In How David Beats Goliath, published in the May 11, 2009 New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell reports on an undersized, untalented, and inexperienced girls’ basketball team that beats bigger, stronger, and “better” teams to reach the national championships.
In a typical basketball game, both teams let the opponent bring the ball down court before starting to play defense. Since the game is contested mostly near the baskets, the team with the better shooting, dribbling, and rebounding skills generally wins. To anyone who has assimilated the game’s conventional standards of excellence, this outcome is as it should be.
The coach of Gladwell’s undersized team, who had never played basketball before, realized that if his girls played the conventional game, they’d lose. So they didn’t. They played a full-court press, clinging to the other team like a bad rash. They guarded the in-bounds pass, trying to force their opponents’ into time violations. They didn’t give the better players a chance to exercise their superior skills. They didn’t play “fair.”
But what is “fair?” In Gladwell’s assessment, fair is the set of standards and behavior that exemplify conventional notions of excellence. “Fair,” in other words, is what favors Goliath. When the underdogs ignore this unwritten code, they win more often than not.
Anatomy of a pusher
The parallels with the pusher are clear. Pushers have typically had no formal instruction. They never learned to worry about the follow-through on a groundstroke or the proper service grip. They never developed a distracting appreciation for the game’s aesthetics. Their pre-match imperative is simple: Just win, baby! The pusher is a man from nowhere, an existential riddle, liberated from the establishment’s expectations. You can’t beat him with what makes you “good.”
So how can you beat him? You can’t beat him at his own game. You’ll beak down emotionally, as the need to hit another dink or moonball starts to threaten your sense of self. And you can’t hit clean balls from corner to corner. The pusher will chase them down. As good as you might think you are, you can’t hit clean balls for as long as he can push.
I’ve concluded that my only chance is to go kamikaze. Last Saturday, my opponent took the first set of our practice match with his disruptive lobs and crazy spins. I was ready to hang up my sticks. Sure, it was just a practice match, but its import felt much greater. Lose today, and I could probably just drop my confidence in the courtside trash can.
I attacked. Relentlessly. I was following the ball into net on every serve. I was chipping back all of his second serves then closing on the net. He continued to lob, but as I took away his time, his balls started coming shorter, giving me easy putaways. I took the second set 6-2.
Locking it down
I kept up the pressure, but never felt like this was the game I wanted to be playing. I get a certain physical and aesthetic satisfaction from the ball’s solid concussion against my racket’s sweetspot as I drive through a forehand. But that’s what the pusher wants. He wants me to become absorbed in pursuits that are tangential to the task of winning. So I continued to charge, hitting brutally ugly volleys off the frame, flailing at overheads, crouching low as I sliced through approach shots. I went up 4-0.
I was tired. I backed off. I stayed on the baseline, knowing this was the wrong strategy, but hoping I’d done to the pusher’s spirit what he had almost done to mine. But the pusher’s spirit never breaks. He took the next three games. His near comeback, I hope, was a lesson that I’ll remember. You can’t play in your comfort zone. You’ve got to attack. And you can never relent. I took the second set 6-3. The victory was a much needed boost to my confidence as the seaon enters its final weeks.