What’s With the Underarm Serve?
It was something of a theme last year on the ATP Tour to talk about the underarm serve and particularly, the question of whether or not it is unsporting. Of course, the main perpetrator was Nick Kyrgios, who routinely threw it in.
As someone who was already quite a divisive figure anyway, this just fanned the flames over the question of how sporting the underarm serve is. Kyrgios is typically unapologetic about his use of the underarm second serve and no doubt we will see it again in the 2020 season.
Kyrgios isn’t the only one who has employed the underarm serve recently though, so is it really unsporting, is it effective, and should you think about using it? For what it’s worth, here’s our opinion here at thetennisbros.com.
Is It Sporting?
If we take a quick look at what sportsmanship is, we get a definition somewhere along the lines of “fair and generous treatment of others in a sporting contest.”
When it comes to the underarm serve, do we think it falls outside the lines of generous treatment of the opponent? It’s hard to see how it does. On one hand, the opponent is expecting one thing (a big first serve) but gets something else (an underhand dolly into the box), but the fact of the matter is, would you rather face a 140mph Nick Kyrgios first serve, or would you rather face an underhand short ball?
If anything, given the choice, an underarm serve is particularly generous. Yes, it can put you off your rhythm as a returner, but so can a drop shot when you’re expecting a firm, deep drive, and that’s completely legal.
In our minds, the underarm serve can’t be unsporting because it’s not ungenerous treatment of your opponent, it’s actually overly generous treatment of your opponent, and here’s why.
Is It Effective?
According to the ATP, Nick Kyrgios wins 78.8% of his first-serve points. Nearly 8 out of 10 times he puts his first serve in court, he wins the point. This means that 80% of the time he tries an underarm serve he has to win the point in order to win more points than with his regular first serve.
When he puts his regular first serve in court, his opponent’s first mission is to try and fight the ball back into court. It’s rare that the returner will manage to get to 50-50 in the point through his return, so naturally, Kyrgios is going to start the majority of points on the front foot when he gets his first serve in.
Whether his opponent is expecting it or not, when Kyrgios plays the underarm serve, all his opponent needs to do is play a good rally shot that gets him to 50-50 in the point and he’s in a much better position than he would otherwise be.
The simple matter is, it’s not very effective when it comes to actually winning the point. It’s more the effect it can have on the returner’s mentality. We saw Kyrgios use the underarm serve against Nadal at Wimbledon when Nadal was standing a mile behind the baseline to return serve, and it did seem to have a small effect.
However, guys like Nadal are incredibly smart on court and they understand the percentages. They know that if they return that underarm serve in court and get to 50-50 in the point then they’re already in a better position than they are the majority of times Kyrgios makes a first serve (and this is relatively easy to do.)
Should You Be Doing It?
Of course, very few people have a first serve as good as Nick Kyrgios. We don’t all win 80% of our first-serve points, and we’re not likely to. However, we’re also probably down a few levels when it comes to talent and the ability to hit a good underarm serve as well.
While an underarm serve once in a while might put questions in your opponent’s mind and win you the odd free point, the percentages say it’s probably not worth it.
Would we do it? I personally just don’t see enough benefit to it. I’m not about to break a tennis taboo to hit a shot that’s statistically going to lower my chance of winning the point. Obviously, there are plenty of people with different opinions about this, and Kygrios seems to be one of them, but I don’t think you’ll be seeing any of us hit the underarm serve any time soon.
Article by: Will