LONDON — It was late Monday evening on center court when Andy Murray tried something for just the second time in his professional career.
The first-round match was close to a one-set finish – he served after beating James Duckworth in the third and led 2-1. Murray, already 15-0 at the good, looked up to see Duckworth standing a little further back than usual. So with a glance and a bounce, he threw an underarm serve and eventually won the point. The execution was a little off – a little deeper effort than he would ideally have liked – but was met with the usual “oooh” from the crowd whenever something is out of the norm here at Wimbledon. .
The underarm serve is a divisive tactic in tennis, but when executed, it can cause confusion. Murray was asked after the game if it was a controversial move. “I don’t know why people ever found it potentially disrespectful,” he said, having previously used it against Carlos Alcaraz at Indian Wells in 2021. “I never understood that. It’s a legitimate way to serve.”
And Murray is far from the only one to try this tactic. One of the most famous deployments of this was Michael Chang in the fifth set of his 1989 French Open match against Ivan Lendl. Chang had cramps and used it as a way to get him over the line. “It never even occurred to me that there was anything wrong with it,” Lendl later said. “Because there was none.”
On the women’s side, Martina Hingis used it against Steffi Graf in the 1999 Roland-Garros final and was booed by the Parisian public. Sara Errani also used it at Roland Garros against Kiki Bertens in 2020 – Errani ended up double faulting twice with the approach.
Murray explained why he used that tactic at the time: “Well, he changed his position back. That’s why I did it,” Murray said. “He was standing very close to the return. He was having a little trouble on the return of the first serve, so he backed up probably 2 yards further. As soon as I saw him back up more, I threw the serve under the arm. serve is a way of saying, if you’re going to back down there, then maybe I’ll add that.”
Those familiar with Murray, like his former coach Brad Gilbert, were surprised to see him give it a go. “I’m not a fan of it in general,” Gilbert, who coached Murray from 2006 to 2007, told ESPN. “It is what it is. If you’re 30 feet back, using it occasionally – I don’t understand why these guys with monster serves want to do it. If you miss it, then these guys pop up and put it away. Murray’s one sucked because he didn’t hit a good one, but I was surprised to see him try it. I don’t think “wow, that’s effective” or a ” great play”. It’s more of a surprise play, and more often than not, a great position for the returner.”
Mischievous Nick Kyrgios is a big fan of this sleight of hand, as is Alexander Bublik. Bublik said in 2021 that he used this type of service for “entertainment”. Although it was only Murray’s second underarm serve in a professional match, Kyrgios touted it as one of his tactics to launch an opponent and win the point.
When Rafael Nadal played him in 2020, he was asked about Kyrgios’ use of underarm serve. Nadal replied: “He lacks respect for the public, the rival and for himself.” Nadal also faced this tactic against American Mackenzie McDonald in 2020. “If you do it to disrespect the opponent, that’s not a good thing,” he said. He added: “For Mackenzie today, it was not a good tactic.”
But often Kyrgios is on the wrong side of the critics when it comes to using the underarm serve. Gilbert is puzzled as to why Kyrgios continually uses him. “I don’t understand because he can hit a 130-135 serve,” Gilbert said. “Maybe he’s doing it to turn things around – or to get some uplift from the crowd. But if I can serve like he does, then I’m going to blast him.”
World No. 1 Daniil Medvedev has also used it, notably last year at Roland Garros against Stefanos Tsitsipas. Tsitsipas was asked about it and dismissively called it “a very millennial blow”.
There’s a school of thought, as Murray said, that players use it more to fight opponents who are standing further behind the baseline. The odd underarm serve keeps them on their toes and prevents them from ever having the luxury of a few extra split seconds to read a serve.
Cliff Drysdale, 1965 US Open runner-up and two-time Wimbledon semi-finalist, has no problem with this and predicts we’ll see more of this tactic in future matches and tournaments.
“I think it’s fun – I have no problem – if you can have someone on their back foot wondering when there’s one coming. I have no problem with that from a sporting point of view,” said Drysdale. ESPN. “Everyone has to get over it – you’ll see it from a few other players – it’s not disrespectful, it’s part of tennis. It’s not a threat to the sport, it’s just a few players that change things. I think we’ll see a little more of that, but not a complete change.”
But on the issue of disrespect, Gilbert – although he’s not a fan of the service as he doesn’t really see the risk-reward ratio justifying it – says there are other acts much more offensive players in the game. “It’s your choice, it’s not like it’s a quick serve, or something involuntary like a grunt after hitting the ball – it’s always your choice. But if you can serve massive serves, so why do it?”
For Murray, although the execution was a little off, it was as much him telling the opponent he had his card marked as he was finding a sneaky way to win a point. “I didn’t use it to disrespect him, but to say, ‘If you’re going to step back to return the serve and give yourself more time, then I’m going to exploit that.'”