Are Underhand Serves Underhanded? Tennis Is Opening Up to the Crafty Tactic

Players concede that the serve can be a good tactic against players who stand far, far back from the baseline. And they know when opponents are trying to show them up.

Neither the pioneer nor the present-day popularizer of the underhand serve has been in Paris this year during the French Open.

Michael Chang, who won the tournament with a clutch use of the serve in 1989, is back in the United States, spending time with his wife, Amber, and their three young children. Nick Kyrgios is back in Australia, spending time on social media as a freelance tennis critic, which should make for some testy conversations with his peers when he finally does return to the circuit in person.

But Chang’s and Kyrgios’s legacy has been on frequent display in the first week of the Grand Slam tournament.

Underhand serves, once broadly considered underhanded in the sport, have been popping up in the autumnal gloom like mushrooms in the French countryside.

Peak season may have been Wednesday. In the stretch of a couple of hours, you could watch Alexander Bublik hold serve with an underhander (it seems time for a punchy, one-word term), see Sara Errani save a match point with one and watch Mackenzie McDonald save nothing at all with a floating, sacrificial offering of an underhander that the 12-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal pounced on for a return winner en route to a 6-0, 6-1, 6-3 victory.

“If he’s winning, it’s a good tactic; if he’s losing, it’s a bad tactic,” Nadal said. He added that, for example, it was “not a good tactic” for Mackenzie. For Bublik, he said, “if that works,” it was “a good tactic.”

Unfortunately for Bublik, it did not work often enough. He lost his second-round match to Lorenzo Sonego in a duel that was also brimming with other tennis exotica, like serve-and-volley tactics and tweeners.