Just like Pablo Cuevas serving for his winning match point in the final of the Sao Paulo tournament, these players have also used an underarm serve at an unexpected moment, to surprise their opponents. With more or less success. And esthetics.
Michael Chang, the reference
Everyone knows the story. It might even be the one which enabled us to (re)define what really is an underarm serve. In 1989, Michael Chang was yet to be famous (17 years old, with no Grand Slam tournament or Masters 1000 won), and wasn’t known for being a spectacular player. In the fourth round of Roland-Garros, the American nevertheless produced a serve which had almost never been seen at this stage of the competition. After having lost the two first sets, and having gone back to equalize against Ivan Lendl, then the world number 1, Chang produced an underarm serve at 4-3 in his favor in the last set. Lendl’s return was easily returned by his opponent, who won the point and infuriated the favorite. Who completely lost his nerves and screamed at the umpire after crashing down mentally. « I hadn’t premeditated that shot, said the future winner of the tournament after the match. I simply did it. My serve wasn’t working well and I absolutely wanted to win that point. » Good call.
Virginie Razzano, the failure
Daring an underarm serve on a match point in your favor, why not ? As long as you know what you’re doing. In the first round of Roland-Garros in 2015, Virginie Razzano tried to use that serve on her second serve, to end her match against Veronica Cepede Royg. But her attempt was completely missed. The small yellow ball landed very far from the service box and the French made a double fault. Thankfully, she ended up winning the match (2-6, 6-4, 6-2). But her serve was an ugly one. Still, according to her, it was the best thing to try : « I wanted to surprise my opponent and sometimes, when I feel like it’s the right moment, I do it. It’s not easy for me as I prefer using my regular serve. Sometimes, you can have trouble with your serve and make the difference with a good attacking shot, and sometimes, you can also try to surprise your opponent. » Sure, but only if you’re precise enough. The same goes for Jerzy Janowicz and Michael Llodra, who have failed while trying the underarm serve, at the 2013 US Open.
Sadio Doumbia, the misunderstood
Sadio Doumbia and the underarm serve have a long history. The Toulouse-born player is one of the rare players to regularly use this serve. The only trouble is that not everybody is happy with that. Which explains why in 2013, when the current world number 271st used this serve twice against Benoît Paire during the Brest tournament, the latter went mad. And explained afterwards why he thought it was a lack of respect : « You don’t see these things very often on the circuit (…). It’s considered to be a small lack of respect. So, ok, afterwards, I was told that he does this during every match, but I don’t really care. We’re still professionals. If he needed that to annoy me because he felt that I was stronger, then I can understand, good for him. But it didn’t work because in the end, I won 6-2, 6-4. That’s it, it’s just something I don’t really appreciate, but it’s just my opinion. » Nevertheless, on these two serves, Doumbia won the point.
Mansour Bahrami, the special one
« It wasn’t a classic underarm serve, like Chang did at Roland-Garros. That’s too easy ! I would throw the ball over my head, pretending I would serve normally, mime the hit, then get my racquet under the ball to hit a reverse drop shot. Chang couldn’t do that ! » This is how Mansour Bahrami described his serve in our columns. A lover of the beautiful game, crazy shots, and the cheers of the crowd, the Iranian tried his best to treat the audience with his famous serve every time he could, as he would always win the following point. Against Yannick Noah at the 1987 Bercy tournament, for instance. Or one year earlier, in the final of the doubles at Bercy, against John McEnroe, who didn’t take it light-heartedly to say the least. « I hit an ace. Everyone was laughing so hard except for McEnroe : ‘You jerk, you think it’s funny ?’ I answered : ‘Shut up, look at the people around you if you’re not happy !’ These days, Bahrami, who only loves tennis for the beauty of the game still produces this exclusive serve which only he can master during exhibition tournaments. To the crowd’s absolute delight.
Milos Raonic, the exception
The living proof that the underarm serve can be an efficient shot. If the best server on the circuit decides to use it instead of hitting his usual missile which enables him, most of the time, to win the point without losing too much energy, there’s a good reason behind the decision. In both cases, the result is the same : a powerless opponent who has conceded an ace. Let’s contextualize, to be precise. In the second round of the 2013 BNP Paribas Paris-Bercy Masters, Robin Haase couldn’t contain the Canadian’s serve (14 aces, not a single break point). For the match point, the hopeless Dutch decided to wait very far from the baseline…behind the linesman. Milos Raonic answered with a very short serve, which Haase couldn’t return. Surely the best thing to do.
Bonus : Lendl and the strange serve