Pushers, Bashers, & How Labels Blind Fans to the Game

Too many tennis fans tend to dismiss certain players’ game styles by condemning them with simplistic labels like “pusher” and “ball-basher”. Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka treated this habit with the appropriate level of seriousness at the WTA Championships player party in 2009 (starting at 0:57):

People use these disparaging terms especially often to describe players in the WTA, where there is a wider variation in players’ physiques and approaches to the game than in the ATP.

Of course, there is a reality behind the labels. Some players naturally play a more defensive game, and lack the physical ability to hit winners from neutral positions against many opponents. But to label these players “pushers” belittles their skills and ignores the tactical complexity of their games. No one reaches the professional tour level simply by running down balls and putting them back just anywhere in the opponent’s court. Calling such players “counterpunchers” better reflects their ability to select intelligent shots and place balls precisely, eventually maneuvering their opponents into disadvantagous positions, at which point they can attack and finish points with winners. But even that label misses part of the picture.

Some players prefer to stay near the baseline throughout most points, and rely primarily on their hitting power to wear down their opponents, draw errors, or create winners. But no one reaches the professional level without learning to hit different shots with different velocities, heights above the net, and from different positions forward or backward in the court. Calling such players “ball-bashers”, or worse, “BBB”s or “brainless ball-bashers” generally ignores their ability to react appropriately to their opponents’ tactics and execute a wider range of shots when the situation requires it. Furthermore, in an era when the technological evolution of rackets and strings has made power an essential element of the game, it’s not very useful to classify players based purely on whether they hit the ball hard. Much of the time, everyone is trying to hit the ball hard.

Using these simplistic labels can hurt fans’ appreciation of the game just as badly as it shortchanges players. To see what I mean, take a look at these statistics from two recent matches at the Australian Open:

Match 1 Player A Player B
Aces 4 0
Points Won on 1st Serve 69% 46%
Winners 25 9
Unforced Errors 21 21
Match 2 Player M Player W
Aces 0 9
Points Won on 1st Serve 48% 88%
Winners 7 29
Unforced Errors 12 25

Now, in each match, which player is the power player and which is the counterpuncher? Easy, right? Player A and Player W are the power players, and Player B and Player M are counterpunchers.

Actually, Player A and Player M are the same person, Ayumi Morita. Morita is generally regarded as a counterpuncher, but as usual, it’s not that simple. Morita hits with two hands on both sides like Marion Bartoli and Monica Seles, and though she’s physically smaller and less powerful than those two, she has a similar ability to take her opponents’ balls early and hit them at acute angles with a surprising combination of power and control. She exploited this ability to become the aggressor throughout her second-round match against Annika Beck (Player B), moving forward into the court, pushing Beck back and yanking her from side to side.

The 18-year-old Beck is the physically larger player and is no slouch, widely labeled as the next young German sensation. She finished last season on a 14-1 streak, winning two $75k ITF tournaments and with seven of those victories coming against opponents ranked in the top 150. She started this season by upsetting fourth seed Hsieh Su-Wei, 6-3 6-0, to reach the quarterfinals in Shenzhen, and defeated the dangerous 28th seed Yaroslava Shvedova in the first round of the Australian Open. But with Morita making bigger first strikes and keeping her on the run, Beck couldn’t hit with enough depth to impose herself on the match. Morita won the match, 6-2 6-0.

In her very next match, Morita faced Serena Williams (Player W) in a match many fans ignored, assuming the result to be a foregone conclusion. By far the superior opponent in ranking, experience, and physical strength, Williams indeed dominated many aspects of the match, both her first serve and her returns often too powerful for Morita to handle. But Morita made things difficult for significant stretches of the match. She stepped inside the baseline to receive Williams’ second serve, returning it with surprising force and at sharp angles, and winning an outstanding 69% of those points. In surprisingly many rallies too, Morita held her own, pulling Williams wide and pressing her into impatience that contributed to Williams’ significant number of unforced errors. Morita led 3-0 in the second set before Williams came back to win, 6-1 6-3.

It’s natural to put players in categories as a tool to understand the game and the matchups in a given tournament. But it’s important to remember that the players are more complex than the categories, and have the capacity to transcend those categories on a given day against a given opponent. Especially to the extent that we make the categories pejorative, we blind ourselves to the remarkable abilities every pro player possesses, and miss opportunities to see what they do on the court to make matches more interesting.

The elements of tennis are simple—two players, two rackets, a ball, a net, a rectangular court. But the way a match unfolds is immeasurably complex. The court is a simple two-dimensional shape, but the infinite variation in the relative positions of the two players on the court means the geometry of possible shot selections is different every time a player hits the ball. The shots move in three-dimensional space, but are altered by many additional factors—spin, wind, the texture and elasticity of the court surface, the conditions of the atmosphere and of the ball. And most importantly of all, every match is critically shaped by the psychology of two players separated by a net and restrained by a rulebook but engaged in a tense and very tangible kind of combat. Their strategy, tactics, courage, imagination, and whim in the heat of battle shape a match far more than the strokes they’ve rehearsed thousands of times in the serenity of practice.

If tennis were all about how hard people can hit the ball, and if power were a reliable guide to the quality of a player, we wouldn’t need courts and matches at all. We could put players in a serving cage with a radar gun and stamp each one with a ranking. But that wouldn’t attract many fans. What makes tennis interesting is not the strokes players produce, but how they apply those strokes to win tactical advantages over particular opponents under particular conditions. Tennis is more interesting when we stop asking ourselves who’s a pusher and start asking ourselves how and why an unfamiliar player is pushing the favorite out of a tournament.

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One Response to Pushers, Bashers, & How Labels Blind Fans to the Game

  1. Jewell says:

    Liked this very much, and like you, I wish more people would leave the pejorative labels alone. (and I’m sure I do it sometimes, too, as a convenient shorthand, or even without realising what I’m doing at all.)

    Saw Radwanska described as having a “despicable moonballing” style the other day on another site. I’m all for different opinions, but if you can watch Aga and come to that conclusion, I’m sorry, you’re just watching tennis wrong, LOL.

    Jewell/@CrackedGem

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