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The Underarm Serve

In recent times we have become slightly more accustomed to seeing an underarm serve in professional tennis. What was once seen as unsportsmanlike is slowly creeping into the professional game, and not just from mavericks like Kyrgios.

Last night saw Andy Murray hit a career-first underarm serve as he triumphed over Carlos Alcaraz at Indian Wells. This feels like a big moment, no longer is this shot just about trying to catch your opponent off guard but as Murray put it - 'it's a smart play'.

The biggest factor in the ever growing presence of underarm serves has been the change in returning position of many players. First popularised by Nadal but now adopted by many of the top pros, a position way back behind the baseline allows the serve to slow down more at contact than it does for a returner from a more orthodox position. This position also allows players to make contact with the ball at a lower height, which is much more in the strike zone around the waist than up higher around the shoulders. In this position players are able to produce a full stroke, adding more spin and height to the ball. This helps returners to get more returns in court and to neutralise the rally more effectively.

As of right now there seem to be two solutions to counter this returning position. Serve and volleying is making a comeback. The server has more time to get into the net and it counters the returners intentions of hitting high net clearance on the return. The returner is also going to find it tough to get the ball to be a low, difficult volley from that far back. The other solution is the underarm serve. At Wimbledon in 2019 there was a lot of build up to a second round match between Kyrgios and Nadal, partly due to the spikey relationship between the two, but also because Kyrgios announced that he would be using the underarm serve against Nadal. This was a move that helped to remove some of the stigma around the underarm serve. It was beginning to be seen as a genuine tactic rather than a cheap trick.

It will be interesting to see how this develops, not just in the professional game but also in club level tennis. Will the underarm serve be accepted as part of the game? Will we see players practice it just like any other shot? It could be time to start practicing.


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