29 March 2019

Underarm or underhand? The jury is out on Nick Kyrgios's serve at the Miami Open

Was Nick Kyrgios a hero or a villain when he served underarm at the Miami Open? Tennis pundits are divided but the tennis rules are crystal clear

Sportsmanship or genius? The underarm serve used by Nick Kyrgios in his match against Dusan Lajovic at the Miami Open this week is dividing the tennis world.  Some thought the use of an underarm serve was an example of underhand tactics and just not cricket. Others, including Judy Murray, thought it was brilliant.

“The whole point of tennis competition is to disrupt your opponent's game by applying pressure through changing the speed, spin, direction, depth or height of the ball. And that includes the serve,” she said on Twitter. “Kyrgios is a genius. I’m surprised more players don’t do it.”

The serve is an interesting shot. It’s designed to get the ball in play but at the same time, it’s the shot players try to make unreturnable, in other words to stop play happening at all. The more difficult it is to return, the more it is admired.

It was not always like this. In the early, genteel days of the game, someone gently got the ball over the net - which then was comparatively high. When the Wimbledon Championships began, it stood at 4 foot high and it wasn’t until one of the tournament’s referees lowered the height (to 3 foot in the middle and 3 foot 6 at the posts), that a more aggressive game, with harder strokes and an overhead serve evolved.

It took the cricket-playing Brits a while to adapt. According to the New York Times it was the American players, who were used to baseball’s overhand throwing motion, who made the serve more fluid.  “The serve is an upward throwing motion, so the straight-arm delivery of cricket does not translate very well to tennis,” John Faribault, a lecturer in human performance at Baylor University told the paper. “The British players in the early years were hampered by a lack of throwing balls as they grew up. Americans became the dominant servers almost immediately, mainly because of baseball.”

With hard, high-bouncing courts in California, the Americans had an extra incentive to make the serve a weapon, with Maurice McLoughlin developing the so called Canonball and Ellsworth Vines winning Wimbledon in 1932 with 30 aces in 12 service games.

Now everyone needs a killer serve and by throwing in an underarm serve, Kyrgios, ever the maverick, is seen as out of step (though there have been a few other famous occasional underarmers including Martina Hingis and Michael Chang over the years).   Whatever the views of Kyrgios's serve (and one disapproving spectator had to be removed by the security team), it is perfectly legal.

According to the ITF’s rules: "The server shall release the ball by hand in any direction and hit the ball with the racket before the ball hits the ground." There are allowances for certain circumstances: "A player who is able to use only one arm may use the racket for the release of the ball”, and there are many other rules relating to the serve, including those about footfaults (see the piece in the Round up ), and the toss. If, for example, you toss the ball and decide not to hit it, you can catch the ball with your hand or your racket or let the ball bounce. But the direction in which you toss the ball before you hit it, is entirely up to you.

Here at Local Tennis Leagues, if someone contacts us and says they can’t serve overhand because of an injury but want to play and serve underarm, we generally say, no problem, just let your opponent know beforehand. But technically, if you want to do a Kyrgios and surprise your opponent with an underarm serve, it is allowed. Just don’t expect your opponent to be pleased! 

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Main pic, Bad Boy Nick by Kate Tann reproduced by CC BY-SA 2.0