Is the Underhand Serve Underhanded?

This article originally was published at TennisPlayer.net

On an early fall day in the quiet residential community in Tarzana, California, I was warming up on court 7, while a foursome was playing doubles on an adjacent court.

They were solid clubbers playing social tennis–weekend warriors who come to play with knee braces, arm braces and then cool down with ice packs on various parts of their bodies.

What reactions do players get from an underhand serve?

Then something happened. One of the four, Little Mikey, as we call him, served an underhand serve to his opponent Butch for an ace. And Butch’s head exploded off his shoulders.

He let out a guttural scream, marched around the net and pointed a threatening finger at Little Mikey. Everyone became silent, waiting to hear what would come next. “If you do that one more time, I am walking off this court and I will never, ever play with you again. It reminded me of the Taylor Swift song. “We are never ever getting back together.”

I’m a pretty good player, rated a 4.5, and I personally don’t think the underhand serve is underhanded. But Butch obviously did.

Chang Did It

Michael Chang used an underhand serve famously at The French Open in 1989 when he played Ivan Lendl and went on to win the title. Martina Hingis did the same to Steffi Graf at Roland Garros in the 1999 final.

Michael Chang’s famous underhand serve against Ivan Lendl.

Tomas Berdych hit one in Montreal in 2013. Last year, Bernard Tomic used it at the Vienna Open. Bobby Riggs even used the underhand serve against me in a money match in Palm Springs in 1980. (He won.)

Dave Sivertson, a master pro and a winner of the 2017 World Team Championships in the 65 and over division says, “The underhand serve is an incredibly useful tool in the right situations. It is a disrupter, and can also be a game changer.”

Said Jimmy Parker, holder of 132 Gold Balls, “I have wondered if the reaction to the underhand serve is a cultural thing.”

While in Argentina playing a doubles tournament, Parker underhanded the serve to his Argentine opponent who apparently felt his manhood had been disrespected. “The guy fell apart as he spent the rest of the match trying to take my head off. It was an easy win for us.” Parker went on to say.

“The underhand serve is just another shot to use, nothing more and nothing less. I don’t try to be deceptive when using it, and in fact, people now expect it from me,” he added.

Underhand Was the Original

In the 19th century when the net was 4 feet high the underarm serve was the norm.

What most people don’t know is that when tennis was being born, the underhand serve was the norm. The net was quite a bit higher, approximately four feet high and the server had to underhand the serve just to get the ball over the net. The serve at that point was just a way to start the point.

However, in 1882, the net was lowered to 36 inches at the center strap and 42 inches at the posts. With this change, it became more effective to serve the ball from an overhand position.

In the 20th century the overhand serve became a huge weapon with players like Bill Tilden and Ellsworth Vines blasting balls for easy points. But the underhand serve was never declared illegal or unethical. Technically it was just another possible shot.

Butch, the ballistic club player, might as well have said that the drop shot is illegal, or that the curveball in baseball or the reverse in football are also unethical and unfair.So, why the outrage? Lobbers, dinkers, pushers, and drop shotters all drive people crazy, but nothing drives people crazier than the underhand serve.

Joel Drucker, a writer for Tennisplayer, Tennis magazine and theTennis Channel told me this: “When competing, we often live on a thin knife’s edge between tranquility and tension. The rarity of seeing an underhand serve –and the challenge of having to deal with a ball that’s potentially quite short and spinning in previously unseen and difficult directions — can send someone right over the cliff.”

Just last week at the Monte Carlo Masters, Tennisplayer contributor Craig O’Shannessy suggested somebody should try an underarm serve against Rafael Nadal.

“Rafa is standing to receive the serve so far back that if you are behind the court you can’t see him if you are sitting in the stands,” Craig said.

“It would be a perfectly legitimate tactic and would disrupt the way he is playing at the moment.”

In the 20th century with Bill Tilden and others the overhand serve became a weapon.

Blasting

Of course we see club players blasting balls everywhere, over hitting and doing multiple other things that are outside of their talent box. They do it for a reason. They like the concept of the winner, they like the ace, they like the big shot. Even if they lose badly they will tell you about the point at 15-40 when they crushed a ball down the line for a winner.

They won’t remember the next three shots they missed by three feet. And so, when a player lines up to serve and then wickedly spins an underhand serve that hits the court surface and wildly spins away from the receiver, that guy’s worldview has been destroyed.

Now one of two things will happen. The guy goes nuts and calls you names and threatens to attack. Or more rarely, a light bulb goes on and he considers doing it himself at the next opportunity.

Personally, I have had significant arm issues and I have developed an underhand serve that I use occasionally to give my arm a break. However, I also use it when I see my opponent standing so far back behind the baseline that he’s pretty much in another county.

To have an effective underhand serve takes practice, just like any other shot. There is a skill to it, a technique. How hard do you slice the ball, do you put a fast slice on it or a slow slice?

How will you anticipate where the return goes and what is the connecting shot after that? It’s not, or shouldn’t be, just a spur of the moment impulse. It takes the same consideration as any other shot you learn to master.

I use the underhand serve to give my arm a break—and as a tactic.

Stacy Margolin Potter, former NCAA singles champion and a top twenty player on the WTA Tour said that she learned the underhand serve from famed coach Jerry Teegarden. Stacy, “If it’s good enough for Peaches Barkowicz it’s good enough for you.” For those of you unfamiliar with the legendary Peaches Bartkowicz, she was one of the original nine women who formed the WTA with Billie Jean King. She was unafraid to use the underhand serve.

So, there is more to the underhand serve than most people think. There is technique, strategy, and execution. And you also have to prepare for the guy who goes Rambo on you. In my opinion if that guy comes charging at you, it’s okay to protect yourself with an overhand serve or any other perfectly legal tennis shot.

Why Senior Tennis Matters to the Rest of Us

“You Schmuck” my father’s voice bellowed as I hit a backhand that hit the back fence. My dad was referring to me using my head, but I thought image was everything. Hey, that’s what Agassi said, right? And besides, I liked hitting winners, when they went in. It was fun. I had played tennis since I was ten-years old and found very limited success as a junior but was the captain of the Beverly Hills High School tennis team, so at least I had that going for me. However, I was not destined for greatness, at least not on the court.

After leaving the game for thirty years to become a writer, producer and director in Hollywood, I once again fell in love with tennis in my early 50’s. This was mostly because I was looking for an escape from a bad marriage and what I call, my lost decade. Tennis became my escape. As much as I thought I was still a kid, my body said I wasn’t. Unlike the Six Million Dollar Man, I was neither faster nor stronger and no one could rebuild me either. It was at that time that I met Dave Sivertson, a former college player, who played back in the 70’s, but made his name as a director of tennis at several high-end clubs including Braemar Country Club in Tarzana California and Mission Hills Country Club in Palm Desert California. He has been designated a Master Pro by The United States Professional Tennis Association. This means, he’s really super good. Dave remade my game and taught me how to win at the USTA league and club level. After struggling to play tennis well and after the three-decade layoff, Dave helped me get to a point where I reached my goal and became a 4.5 player and began to win almost all of my matches. And, just for fun, I got my USPTA professional certification. For me, that was really cool. I wished my dad were alive to see that. Finally, I was using my head and as for image, let’s just say we left that at the door.

Six months ago Dave called and told me that he would be playing for the U.S. Super Seniors men’s 65 and over team in the ITF (International Tennis Federation) World Championships. This was a significant honor as the United States Tennis Association selects the top 4 players in the country based on performance of wins at the national level. Last year the event was held in Croatia and this year it was held at The U.S. National Tennis Campus, in Lake Nona, Florida… “The Home of U.S. Tennis.” This was something I had to see, so I booked my flight and headed off to Orlando, home of Mickey Mouse, humidity and unmarked toll roads.

The National Tennis Campus is a phenomenal facility. Beautifully landscaped, and set on 64 acres, it is the home of U.S. player development and boasts a hundred courts, some pretty good food and beautiful views. It is also on the landing approach path to Orlando International Airport, which I think was planned to prepare future U.S. stars to play at the U.S. Open. That venue is also on the landing path for JFK. The planes are so low, I am quite sure John Isner could hit a ball inside the wheel well of one of those big birds descending out of the south.

One hundred and twenty-three teams from thirty-one countries competed this year in nine divisions of the Super Seniors World Championships, and it was remarkable tennis. Tennis fans today are fixated on the pro-tour, however, for anyone at the club and recreational level who is serious about playing tennis to win, it’s important to seek out high level senior tournaments because that is the game you need to see in order to make your game better. Federer, Williams and Nadal are great entertainment, but senior tennis is the type of game the club and recreational player needs to watch. The game is slowed down, but the quality isn’t.

We have all seen the club player try to whip a forehand up the line clearing the net by a nano-inch only to stumble across the doubles line and off the court. If they are incredibly lucky, the ball goes in the court but they are as out of position as Nick Kyrgios would be in a synchronized swimming competition. This is the twenty-year old self-talking to us. It’s the part of us that tells us no matter how old we are and how creaky our bodies are, we can still do it. Sorry Charlie, but we can’t. Why not just toss up a lob and reset the point? Why, because it’s boring. However, if you want to win, patience and tactics trump winners.

Several years back, Dave Sivertson adopted a philosophy on winning that involves a few very basic ideas. These are common sense concepts but yet most club players never do them. Winners are overrated, risk must be assessed on every point and patience and percentage tennis are paramount to winning. This philosophy translates down to from the 5.0 levels to the 2.0 levels. Even if you look at the data from the top tour players, you will find that over time the players with the least unforced errors win more matches than those with the most winners. This data explodes exponentially at the club level, which means, winners may be fun, but they are not the way to win.

While other players at the top levels of senior tennis may not articulate this philosophy, they seem to intuitively do it. Jimmy Parker, who played in the Men’s 70 and over division has a record 131 gold balls. Tina Karwasky, the number one woman player in the world in the 65’s and former top 100 tour player has 121 gold balls and also uses this philosophy to win. In many ways she is a mirror to Sivertson. Both players and their teams won gold medals this year. The women’s team beat Australia and the men’s team defeated Austria. In fact seven American teams were in the finals with six taking gold medals.

This is not a game of power, it’s a game of tactics and strategy…a game of who makes the fewest errors, and who has the most patience. You won’t see a lot of winners, but you will see remarkable tennis. The elegance of performance is evident in almost every match.

And so my journey to Lake Nona came to an end as I celebrated with Dave and his team of Larry Turville, Len Wofford, and Paul Wolf, all stupendous players, I came away with one thought. This was a lot of fun and despite their age, these guys define what a champion is both in the way they play and the way they comport themselves on the court. This trip was definitely a winner for me. And as they say, “Tennis is the sport of a lifetime.”