How to Beat a Tennis Lobber (aka, the Pusher, Counterpuncher, or Moonballer)
The dreaded lobber. We've all been there. We start the warm-up with our opponent and the ball comes looping back with no pace, no top spin, and no control. "No problem. It's just the warm-up," you think to yourself.
The match starts and every shot they hit is a lob—every effing one! Your inner tennis spirit screams to the heavens. You're about to face the nemesis of the recreational tennis player: the lobber.
I'm not just going to show you how to beat the lobber, I'm going to show you how to crush the lobber.
Skill Level: Intermediate (3.5 - 4.0: U.S. NTRP self-rating)
Format: Singles Tennis
Do You Struggle Against Lobbers in Tennis?
Use Strategy to Beat the Tennis Pusher
First, let's clear something up. The term "lobber" in tennis is interchangeable with pusher, moonballer, defensive baseliner, and counter-puncher. This article is not intended in any way to belittle the strategy or the people who employ it. It's simply to deconstruct it, highlight its weaknesses, and teach people how to beat it (sorry if you're a pusher!).
Summary Objective: Disrupt the lobber. Take time away from the lobber by taking the ball out of the air. Wait for a weak reply. Put away the volley for a winner.
"The net?! But my volley is terrible," the typical baseliner thinks to himself. "No!"
I know. You probably think your volley game sucks. And it might. Too bad. This strategy requires that you hit volleys—lots and lots of volleys. But you know what? It works. There are a few basic components we need to discuss and then you'll have it down.
- No-man's land
- Shot tolerance
- Putting it all together
Figure A: Court Positions
1. Don't Play the Net: Play No-Man's Land
Conventional wisdom says that getting caught in no-man's land is bad. When facing a lobber, I basically want you to play every rally from no-man's land.
Don't play the net! Other articles out there tell you to play the net. They're wrong. You finish the point at the net, but you play the rallies in no-man's land.
Look at figure A above. The lobber is most comfortable when their opponent is in either position: baseline or net. If you're at the baseline they know their moonball is gonna backspin fifteen feet over the net, then parachute back to the baseline, jump off the court and over your head, and you're going to try your best to hit a ground stroke. While all that was happening the lobber had enough time to recover from his shot, wipe his brow, and send a text to his friend. "Oh look," they think. "My opponent just hit the ball back." Repeat.
When you're at the net that's when the pusher shines. That's the only time they get to rack up the winners on their stat sheet. "Why?" you ask. Because when you're at the net their normal shot is going to sail right over your head for a clean lob winner--even if it's not that good of a lob.
This is what flummoxes us club-level players. Lob winners (also known as the most frustrating winner in tennis, right?!). We think, "I can't grind a win from the baseline, that will take three hours and I still might lose, and I can't come to the net because they lob me every time. So what do I do?"
You play no-man's land. While in no-man's land...
- Drops are easy to run down.
- Lobs can't go over your head.
- You may get a short ball for an easy winner / approach winner.
The key tactic to playing in no-man's land: Taking the lob out of the air. That's right: volley the ball.
Usually, the lobber's consistent shot is more of a moonball than a true lob. So if you're standing in no-man's land you're in the perfect position to hit a volley. It won't be a put-away volley, but it will be decent. This will return the ball to the lobber significantly faster than had you let it bounce and hit a groundstroke. See figure B below.
2. Observe Shot Tolerance and Probability
The pusher rarely has an excellent tennis shot (aka, a weapon). Their admirable attributes are usually foot speed/retrieving, and keeping the ball in play. But, with keen observation you ought to be able to identify a stronger wing.
In my experience, the lobbers better wing is usually their backhand. This probably has something to do with the predominant strategy in singles: dictate play with the forehand, which usually means, hit a forehand to your opponent's backhand until you get a weak reply and then hit a winner. So the lobber has a massive amount of experience grinding out hundreds of backhands in a match.
They might be more likely to make an error with their forehand, but you still have to observe. The pusher usually has "one" other shot they can play besides the moonball. It's typically the slice (usually a forehand slice!) or the accidental drop-shot (a failed slice that lands in play). Find out which wing is more likely to use the variety and keep that in mind. The counter puncher with that one extra shot can be crippling if you're pinned three feet behind the baseline.
Shot tolerance is a broad term, but for our purposes here, it means a couple things. How many rally balls can they hit before they either make an error or feed you a weak reply? Is it 3, 5, or can they hit 20 shots before making an error? This is basic shot tolerance, and is a good thing to observe during a match. How do they tolerate certain shots that you hit them? Do they struggle with a high bouncer, the low ball, on-the-run forehand? Do they make more errors with one of their wings? This is specific shot tolerance. Observe these things and put them together in the moments between points. This is additional information that can inform your reactions during the point.
3. Put Together a Strategy to Beat the Lobber
Now that we've looked at the lobber, their strengths and weakness; no man's land and why you should be there; and shot tolerance; let's put together a point structure strategy to beat the pusher and walk away with the win.
An ideal point on the serve looks like this (see figure C):
- Place your serve.
- Hit a heavy ground stroke to your opponent's weaker wing.
- Advance into no-man's land.
- Volley the moonball into the open court.
- Adjust your position slightly.
- Continue to volley the moonballs into the open court until you spot "the weak reply."
- As soon as you get the weak reply, rush the net and hit a put-away volley. Or, if the weak reply is so bad that it bounces in front of you, hit a winner.
Did This Strategy Work for You?
Common Anti-Lobber Pitfalls
- Your opponent will hit some lob winners. Just deal with it. Sometimes you will see a weak reply, leave no-man's land, rush the net, hit what you think is a volley winner, but they will run it down and hit an infuriatingly-awesome backhand-on-the-run lob to the back corner and win the point. Don't let this frustrate you. It's okay if he gets eight, nine, or ten lob winners if you get thirty volley or groundstroke winners.
- You will miss volleys and overheads. This is recreational tennis. You're going to make errors. As long as you're hitting more volley winners than errors, just keep hitting volleys. Also, you will have to hit the smash (overhead) for this strategy to work. If you don't have a great smash, that's okay. Don't try to put the smash away, just hit a moderate overhead and that will apply serious pressure to the lobber.
- You don't have a reliable volley. This is a problem. If you're executing the strategy but you're missing tons of volleys and dropping games quick, you're in trouble. If you miss a few here and there, no biggie: stick with the strategy, but; if you've dropped a few games without hitting a single volley winner, then you will probably lose the match. If you struggle to beat pushers from the baseline, and you want to use this strategy, go out and practice your volleys for a few hours.
This strategy highlights one of the lobber's biggest weaknesses: they have no passing shot. If you employ this strategy, and don't error yourself out of the game, the lobber actually cannot beat you. No-man's land is a wonderful position to play, but only if you know your opponent cannot hit a topsin shot. The topspin pusher is a different beast altogether. Just to be clear, if your opponent is hitting moonballs with lots of topspin, that's not a "lobber" in the traditional sense. Believe it or not, that is an advanced shot and beating that type of player is beyond the scope of this article.
Playing volleys will put the pusher under extreme pressure and take them out of their comfort zone. They'll have no time to plan their shots and eventually feed you a weak ball. If you hit winners you will demoralize them and they will be left thinking, "There is just nothing I can do to win a point."
Employ this strategy effectively and you'll start defeating low level pushers 6-2 6-2, easy-mode.
Love the game!
© 2013 Time Spiral