The rules for hitting a tennis serve say that you have to stand behind the baseline and hit the ball into the service box diagonally opposite. You should release the ball from your non-racket hand and hit it with your racket before it hits the ground. If it lands in the correct box without hitting the net, it is a valid serve. You are allowed to serve however you like as long as you stand in the right place, and the ball does not bounce before you hit it. Due to the far greater power that can be developed, it has become fashionable to serve the ball from above your head. Nonetheless, there is a growing trend towards introducing the occasional underhand serve.
The underhand serve is generally used as a variation. Players at the top level who consistently served underhand would not do well. However, some players tend to stand far behind the baseline when receiving serves and, against these opponents, it makes sense to hit a short underhand serve once in a while in the hope of catching them off guard.
How To Hit An Underhand Tennis Serve
The most effective type of underhand tennis serve is one hit with disguise. In other words, you have to make sure that your opponent believes you are going to hit a powerful overhead serve until the last possible moment.
To hit a successful underhand serve, players must go through the early stages of the serve motion as normal, but, prior to the point at which one would lift the non-racket arm above the waist to toss the ball, he must bring the racket forward with the head pointing downward, release the ball with the hand below hip-height and hit it with an underhand motion.
Try to apply slice or sidespin by cutting under or across the ball for it to stay low and stop quickly. Remember that the underhand serve is essentially a drop-shot and should never be hit flat or with topspin.
Are Underhand Tennis Serves Bad?
Emphatically not! It is almost universally agreed among serious amateur or professional players that using an underhand serve is a valid tactic that definitely has a place in the modern game. Leading Scottish coach Judy Murray, the mother of Andy and Jamie has described its use as ‘genius.’ Use of a well-played underhand serve is similar to the employment of a drop-shot in a rally: it adds subtlety to a game which at times can appear to be largely about power. So why do some people dislike it?
Part of the issue with underhand serving may be due to the transatlantic language barrier. In the UK and many parts of Europe, this style of serving is described as ‘underarm,’ which to an American suggests an area they may wish to shave. The word ‘underhand’ is solely used to mean ‘sneaky’ or ‘devious’ in the UK. Thus if you tell a British or European person that you plan to engage in underhand serving, they will immediately be suspicious.
In addition, there is a historical notion that if a player plans to serve underhand, they should notify their opponent in advance. This is obviously absurd, as it would negate the effect of the shot: it is like telling an opponent in the middle of a rally that you plan to play a drop-shot! Nonetheless, there are still a few people who believe this.
Why Underhand Serves Are Hated By Many
The primary reason why some might dislike underhand serving is that it is an effective tactic. If you face a big server and are prepared for a big, high-bouncing serve, you will obviously be in trouble if they can execute a well-disguised underhand serve. Nobody enjoys losing a point.
At the club level, some extra considerations apply. It could be considered a little unethical to hit an underhand serve in social doubles against an elderly or obese opponent, as it could be argued that you were simply trying to humiliate them. The same argument applies to drop-shotting them in a rally. In a match, of course, anything goes.
Players Who Serve Underhand
One of the most highly popular uses of an underhand serve was by 17-year-old Michael Chang in the final set of the 1989 French Open semi-final against Ivan Lendl. Chang was cramping, diminishing the power of his already modest overhead, so he threw in an underhand serve. This brought Lendl to the net, and the young American passed him, much to the delight of the crowd. This dealt a psychological blow to the Czech favorite, and Chang eventually went on to win the title.
Today, there are players who are more than happy to bring out the occasional underhand serve. Nick Kyrgios and Alexander Bublik both practice the shot and have used it in some high-profile matches. Daniil Medvedev used an underhand serve during his defeat of Alexander Zverev at the 2020 ATP Tour Finals, saying that he employed it instinctively because Zverev was standing so far back.
The tactic became quite popular at the French Open in 2020 due to the balls’ extra weight resulting from the cool, damp conditions. On the women’s side, Sara Errani and the queen of the sliced forehand, Monica Niculescu, both employed it with various degrees of success.
The 41-year-old legend Ivo Karlovic used the tactic to great effect in his qualifying defeat of Noah Rubin. He was not serving particularly well in the early stages but observed that Rubin was almost pressed against the back fence while waiting to return, so he used a couple of underhand serves to help him hold onto his service games at a crucial stage of the first set.
The underhand serve requires skill and practice to execute well, and it brings welcome variety into the game. If you ever hear anybody say that it is a bad tactic to use, you might want to remind them of the rules!