LONDON — It was late into Monday evening on Centre Court when Andy Murray tried something for just the second time in his professional career.
The first-round match was poised at one set all — he was serving having broken James Duckworth in the third, and leading 2-1. Murray, already 15-0 to the good, looked up and saw Duckworth standing a little further back than usual. So with one glance and a bounce, he threw down an underarm serve and ultimately won the point. The execution was a little off — a slightly deeper dinked effort than he’d have ideally wanted — but it was greeted with the usual “oooh” from the crowd whenever something breaks from the norm here at Wimbledon.
The underarm serve is a divisive tactic in tennis, but when executed it can cause bewilderment. Murray was asked after the match whether it was a controversial act. “I don’t know why people have ever found it potentially disrespectful,” he said, having previously used it against Carlos Alcaraz at Indian Wells in 2021. “I’ve never understood that. It’s a legitimate way of serving.”
And Murray is far from being 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 was cramping and used it as a means to get him over the line. “It never even crossed my mind that there was something wrong with that,” Lendl later said. “Because there wasn’t.”
On the women’s side, Martina Hingis used it against Steffi Graf in the 1999 French Open final and was booed by the Paris crowd. Sara Errani also utilized it at Roland Garros against Kiki Bertens in 2020 — Errani ended up double-faulting twice with the approach.
Murray explained why he used this tactic at that point: “Well, he changed his return position. That’s why I did it,” Murray said. “He was standing very close to return. He was struggling a little bit on the first-serve return, so he stepped probably 2 meters further back. As soon as I saw him step further back, I threw the underarm serve in. The underarm serve is a way of saying, If you’re going to step back there, then I’m going to possibly throw that in.”
Those who know Murray well, like his former coach Brad Gilbert, were surprised to see him try it. “I’m not a fan of it generally,” 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 mishit it, then these guys pop up and put it away. Murray’s was a lousy one, as 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 a surprise play, and more often than not, a great position for the returner to be in.”
The mischievous Nick Kyrgios is a big fan of that sleight of hand, as is Alexander Bublik. Bublik said in 2021 he used that type of serve to “entertain” himself. While this was only Murray’s second underarm serve in a professional game, Kyrgios has introduced it as one of his tactics to throw an opponent and win the point.
When Rafael Nadal played him in 2020, he was asked about Kyrgios’ use of the underarm serve. Nadal responded, “He lacks respect for the public, the rival and toward himself.” Nadal also faced this tactic against American Mackenzie McDonald in 2020. “If you do it to disrespect the opponent, it’s not a good thing,” he said. He added: “For Mackenzie today, it was not a good tactic.”
But often, it’s been Kyrgios on the wrong end of criticism when it comes to using the underarm serve. Gilbert is bemused as to why Kyrgios continually uses it. “I don’t get it, as he can hit a 130-135 serve,” Gilbert said. “Maybe he’s doing it to change things up — or to get a rise from the crowd. But if I can serve the way he does, then I’ll be booming it down.”
World No. 1 Daniil Medvedev has used it too, including last year at Roland Garros against Stefanos Tsitsipas. Tsitsipas was asked about it and called it dismissively “a very millennial shot.”
There’s a school of thought, as Murray said, that players are using it more to combat opponents standing further behind the baseline. The odd underarm serve keeps them on their toes and prevents them from always having the luxury of extra split-seconds to read a serve.
Cliff Drysdale, the 1965 US Open finalist and two-time Wimbledon semifinalist, has no issue with it and predicts we will see more of this tactic over the coming matches and tournaments.
“I think it’s fun — I don’t have any problem — if you can have someone on their back foot wondering when there’s one coming. I don’t have any problem with it from a sporting point of view,” Drysdale told ESPN. “Everybody must get over it — you’ll see this from a few more players — it’s not disrespectful, it’s part of tennis. It’s not a threat to the sport, it’s just a few players changing things up. I think we’ll see a little more of it, but not a complete change.”
But when it comes to the question of disrespect, Gilbert — though not a fan of the serve as he doesn’t really see the risk-reward ratio warranting it — says there are other far more offensive acts in the game. “It’s your choice, it’s not like it’s like quick serving, or something unintentional like grunting after you’ve hit the ball — it’s still your choice. But if you can serve massive serves, then why do it?”
For Murray, though the execution was a little off, it was as much him telling the opponent he had his card marked as it was finding a sneaky way to win a point. “I used it not to be disrespectful to him but to say, ‘If you’re going to step further back to return the serve to give yourself more time, then I’m going to exploit that.'”