I once watched video of a top junior who'd just lost a close five-game match. He's normally an aggressive player, but has a good, stiff push that often catches opponents off guard. He's also comfortable blocking, so he can get away with letting the opponent attack first as long as he's not giving him an easy attack. But in this match, something went wrong.
Here's the part that stood out. When he pushed serves back long 2-3 times a game, the opponent wasn't really ready for it and he won about half those points. But toward the end of the match he began pushing more. In the fifth game, he pushed five serves back long and the opponent was ready - and won all five.
The lesson? A good, stiff push, even at high levels, is a highly effective weapon when the opponent isn't expecting it. Corollary - below the elite level, a good stiff push is almost always effective, as long as the pusher is comfortable if the opponent does a soft attack.
So, what is a good, stiff push, and when should you use it? Roughly speaking, there are six attributes of a good, stiff (i.e. long) push – and if you don’t practice them, you won’t be able to consistently execute them:
- Quick off the bounce
- Disguised placement
At higher levels, you want all six. At lower levels, you might get away with doing only some of these. Sometimes you can get away with just one, such as pushing really heavy or well angled. (Here's my Tip from 2011, Pushing: Five out of Six Doesn't Cut It.)
When should you give the opponent a stiff push? It depends on the opponent. If they have trouble with them and don't really seem to have any way of dealing with them effectively, you can win an entire match almost entirely on this one shot. Against others, you have to be more judicious in their use. If they know it's coming, they'll be set for it. Against some players, it's the best way to return the serve. But it's usually best to push long when the opponent doesn't know it's coming. That means being aware of what your opponent is doing. Is he jammed to the table, vulnerable to a long push? Is he crowding his backhand corner, looking to forehand loop from that corner? Have you given him any short balls, so that he has to stay close to the table, watching for them, thereby making him a bit slower in reacting to deep pushes? With experience, you begin to see these things automatically, and then you automatically will give your opponent a good, stiff push at just the right time.
So . . . is it time to get pushy?