The big story of the underarm service

Mar 15, 2022, 6:00:00 AM | by Florian Cadu

Nick Kyrgios
As old as tennis itself and almost the first gesture taught to debutants, the underarm service continues to have a place in the history of the small yellow ball. This service, not as simple as it seems, has to be executed with perfect timing and serves three objectives: to gain psychological advantage over an opponent, to provide a tactical blow and to create a spectacle.

Thursday, June 24th. 2021. Under pressure from Lorenzo Sonego in the quarter final of the British tournament in Eastbourne,  Alexander Bublik decided on a change of tactic and produced seven underarm services in the same game, the seventh of the second set. Frankly not successful even if the Russiaan finally managed to avoid the service break it was not sufficient to save either that set or the match. In 2019, Sara Errani, well known for controversial tactics, experienced different fortunes during a tournament in Bogota: traumatised by eighteen double faults from the previous tournament, the Italien crushed Bibiane Schooff thanks notably to 35 underarm services out of a total of 55 (64%). But how and why this technique normally reserved to Sunday knockabouts amonst youngsters has come back in force during these last years?


Not only for the show

Before 2010, we have to go back a long way and recall the legendary episode concercerning Michael Chang 1989 when the underarm service triumphed at 4- 3 in the decisive set of his quarter final at Roland Garros had completely bamboozled Ivan Lendel or recall pictures of Martina Hingis cat-called by the French public for two uses of the underarm service against Steffi Graf in 1999  to revive memorable under-arm services. The images of this stroke so exceptional and so rare and "out of space" were so loved by Mansour Bahrami. The Franco-Iranian who succeeded in discomforting the biggest stars by using the underarm service adds: "For me, in addition this was not a classic underarm serve . I threw the ball above head level. I mimed to hit it then swung the racket below the ball to transform the pace of the serve. I did that to create sensation. Once Yannick Noah asked if he could join in with the general applause."

Does this service simpy add to the spectacle? Not so. In reality the underarm serve has the potential to be disconcerting. First psychologically, the opponent could be perturbed by this tactic. Ex-trainer of Noah,Patrice Hagelhauer even speaks of it as "a slap in the face" capable of giving ascendency to its protagonist. Tactically then, this ploy could be a brittiant solution in certain situations. "The underarm service is definitely a tactic, in particular against guys standing well back  to receive the service. From this point of view, I don’t find it shameful to exploit this", confirmed Roger Federer. Judy Murray, the mother and coach of Andy Murray has confirmed on Twitter: "The aim of tennis is to upset your opponent’s game and put it under pressure by varying the speed , the trajectory and the height of the ball. This includes the serve and I am surprised that the undder-arm service is not used more by players." In 2007, during the semi-finals of of a tournament in Stockholm, the King of Serves, Ivo Karlovic, himself attempted this tactic whilst  facing a Tommy Haas standing too far back as he waited to face a rocket which was transformeed into a caress.

"For the returner, undoubtedly surprised, it is very complicated to deal with despite not being an ace, since it makes you rush to the net and return the ball whilst sprinting. Therefore there is the possibility  of  playing it too softly or retuning it too long.  But beyond that, the danger of being passed or lobbed is ever present", adds Hagelhauer, ex DTN of the FFT.  "I ask myself why we don’t see it more ofter given the number of players standing well back behind the service line. We are dealing with a very interesting tecchnique, especially on clay where it could be highly effective. It adds to the variety, it is a change from the classic approach and  tactically it  is very creative. I say to myself that someone like Hugo Gaston with his mastery of the drop shot could use it."


"If you miss..."

Needless to say, it is a gesture inculcated at the earliest age - "Amongst youngsters who find serving difficult we suggest a first serve in the conventional way  and a second serve underarm" (Hagelhauer) - and, inspite of appearing simple, it is easier to eat a yoghurt with a spoon than to make a spoon service. "At international level, as demonstrated by Chaang or Nick Kyrgios, it has to be perfectly executed. It is not a matter of putting the ball in the court, it  is a stroke much more technical than one imagines: the movement of the arm must produce a drop shot with a lateral effect, very short and close to the net. One needs to master it. Not everone has sufficient touch or technique", advises Patrice Hagelhauer. Otherwise the probability of failiure is high. Virginie Razzano, Michaael Llodra and also Jerzy Janowicz won’t argue with that, they tried and failed to benefit from its execution. 

"I wanted to surprise my opponent and when I feel it is the right time to do  it, I do it", said the French player despite the disasterous attempt on a matchball which almost led to a fatal mistake , or,  in 2017 Pablo Cuevas, who did it whilst  winning his third consecutive title in Sao Paulo. "It isn’t easy for me because I prefer to use my normal service. But if you are having problems with your service you can make a differnce  with an effective attack and surrise an opponent." Except that we can not count on the effect of that surprise , the use of instinct is almost indespensible for that technique to work. "I did not premeditate  the stroke. My service was not working very well and I wanted above all to win the point", noted Chang in the past, adding that he had adopted this service only once in his career. "The other difficulty is to do with timing", emphasises Hagelauer. "It must arrive as a surprise and not be telephoned, and it has to be done with fluidity whilst being disguised as a conventional service. All this with an opponent standing well behind  the  base line. Without it being  at the right time and without great technique it will be a point lost."

"You would look idiotic if you messed it up. The problem is that you never serve like this during a practice. Thus, when you are in a big match in front of a large crowd, it is risky to do it", said Federer, echoing the thoughts of Hagelhauer. "If you miss it is obvious that you risk looking ridiculous: everybody is going to laugh at you, telling you to serve normally! Therefore you must pull off what is not always easy. Like a Panenka in football to sum it up", emphasizes Bahrami who goes even further in his remarks: "Be careful, this service will neither win you a match nor advance your career. Chang did it once to upset Lendel but he stopped there. If he had done it again he would have been sunk. In four services attempted, you will win one. Therefore it is much much less rewarding than a normal serve. If Rafa Nadal is five metres behind the base line it might work for the first time. But afterwards he will be attentive and vigilant. Ready to attack and to produce a return which will flash past you."

"I don’t know if the spoon serve is overrated, but clearly it is not a service you can use 25 times in a match", concedes Hagelhauer. According to Bahrami, this gesture, which continues to be controversial has, in any case, been rarely used since the beginning of times: "With the internet and social networks, we have the impression that it has come back into fashion but I don’t believe this. In fact it has always been there. Today’s players do it occasionally simply because they have seen a previous generation do it ! The idea has not suddenly entered the head of Kyrgios from one day to the next. Sixty years ago, I was no more than a small kid and already I had witnessed it several times. The difference is that today the media talks about it all the time." Anyway enough to change the mind of Benoit Paire: if he called this stroke a lack of respect in 2015 after having suffered twice at the hands of Sadio Doumbia in Brest, the man from Avignon has decided to use it himself. Whether for tactical advantage or for fun, that is another question.