I'd just finished playing tennis with Knots Landing star Donna Mills (best first blog sentence ever), feeling pretty good about winning, when my opponent shook hands with me at the net and, with a smile, called me the dirtiest word in tennis. No, not cheater. Or juicer, or match fixer. Or even bad tipper. No, Abby Cunningham looked me square in the eye and called me a pusher.
Is there any word more dismissive in tennis? Sometimes it's wrapped in a nicer bow. Counter-punching they call it. Defensive. Sometimes it even comes with the compliment that the player really gets so many balls back. They're a "wall." But really what they're saying is, I have guts and try to make things happen and you're passive, you wait for mistakes and you suck.
Or simply, I play real tennis and you don't.
The word carries up the ranks to the very top of the pro tour. Caroline Wozniacki? Pusher. Andy Murray? Pusher. Agnieszka Radwanska? Pusher. But here's the thing I can't help but notice on the ground in Indian Wells. Caroline Wozniacki? Still in the tournament. Andy Murray? Still in the tournament. Agnieszka Radwanska? Still in the tournament. A stark contrast to the bloodbath of heavy hitters - Azarenka, Sharapova, Verdasco, Cilic - who've grossly overhit their way out of the desert.
What is it about players who win matches without relying on huge weapons that fills us with so much disdain? Whose opting for court craft over brawn to get the job done boils our collective pickle? And let's be clear about at least the three counterpunchers I've already mentioned. They may not rely on weapons and hyper-aggressive play, but they can certainly turn up the heat when they have to. Yet their intention to play more within themselves infuriates those who see how highly they're ranked and feel they just don't deserve it. Or, oh how much higher they could go if they'd just take chances! Until then, what a waste of a life.
PUSHING toward a title.
You know what a waste of a life was? Mine, watching Nadia Petrova come back from a set down yesterday to utterly dominate Wozniacki, only to turn around and get bageled in the third because she thought she could hit through whatever funhouse was going on between her ears. Can Caroline be overpowered? Yes. But it takes a hell of a lot to do it. Does she get respect for that? Not enough.
Ditto Murray. How many times have we heard how he'll never be a real contender until he learns to let loose and unload? Be a man for god's sake! And yet he made it as high as No 2 in the world, and in the beef stew that was the men's draw in Melbourne, who was there on the very last day? When the Scot needs to bring it, he can (see his sizzling match v. Rafa in the AO quarters). But otherwise, he confounds the entire tennis establishment by winning conservatively.
When all is said and done, pushers are a frustrating lot. They're so damn steady, so damn boring, it's enough to drive you insane. Yes, we pushers know this. We see you over there going for more and more, tiptoeing further and further out of your comfort zone to be done with it already. We see you get angry with yourself when you inevitably realize you went for too much. We delight when you crack your racquet in disgust and hurl curses at yourself and your mother. "How could I be losing to them?! They're not even doing anything!!!" RAGE!
Andy Murray loves your rage. Agnieszka Radwanska loves your rage. I love your rage. Miss Sunshine, Caroline Wozniacki? She eats your rage for breakfast. You see, tennis is a game of brawn, but it's also a game of psychology. And the shivers of delight that go up the pusher's spine when they've driven you so bonkers that you've struck yourself in the head with your racquet last so much longer than any fist pump from a clean winner. Pushers aren't scaredy cats. We're demented and evil.
Now, don't get me wrong. If I could have Novak Djokovic's backhand or Donna Mills' forehand, I'd snatch that baby up in a heartbeat. I'm a huge fan of power tennis done right. And when you get two big hitters going at it on all cylinders – Kim Clijsters v. Alisa Kleybanova Monday night here in the desert (the best women's match so far this tournament) or, currently playing out before me, James Blake v. Nicolas Almagro – there's really nothing better. But there's more than one way to skin an opponent. And believe me, Caroline's 8 winners to Nadia Petrova's 57 unforced errors is skinning. And devouring, and eating the bones. And it's a job well done.
Not that Caroline got any credit. When pushers win, they don't win. The other person lost. I can't tell you how many matches I've played where they said they gave it away. Screw you! You know why you lost? Because you hit the ball out more than I did. Fancy that! Sure, Petrova imploded, along with Henin, and Kuznetsova, and Cilic, and Sharapova. But they had help.
So all you counter-punchers with your single-digit unforced error counts, all you fans of players who constantly get ridden for merely keeping the ball inside the lines, stand tall. And when someone gets in your face and venomously or disdainfully spits the word at you – PUSHER! - you puff out your chest and say thank you.
Or just soft lob it back to the middle of the court. Cuz that's how we roll.
Pushers. We keep the ball in.
Follow this pusher at twitter.com/JamesLaRosa.