Gentleman’s Disagreement

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Michael Chang's use of the underhand serve is part of tennis legend. (YouTube)

One of the most memorable moments in sports occurred in 1989 at the French Open, when Michael Chang—exhausted, cramping, hobbling—had the temerity to hit an underhand serve at a critical juncture in his fourth-round clash with heavily favored and highly seeded Ivan Lendl.

A collective gasp issued from the spectators as well as the legions assembled on sofas and armchairs around the world. This remains the most celebrated—or is it notorious?—application of the most overlooked shot in tennis. But others have done it, usually under comparable duress. Martina Hingis, in the next most memorable example, sliced into play an underhand serve during her match with Steffi Graf at the 1999 French Open final.

At the time, Graf was almost 30 and had failed to win a Grand Slam singles title in three years. Hingis, by contrast, was a feisty, combative, self-confident 18-year-old, who had won her first major at just 16. She had swept the singles and doubles titles in Melbourne at the first Grand Slam event of the year. Hingis beat Monica Seles in the semifinals there, after Seles had crushed Graf in the quarters, 7-5, 6-1.

Chang used his underhand serve against Lendl at 3-4, 30-all in the fifth set. Hingis used hers to fend off a match point. While the French crowd cheered Chang’s sneaky effort, they showered Hingis with catcalls and jeers—and continued to boo her through the rest of the third set (Graf ultimately won it, 6-2).

There was more to the hostility of the French crowd than Hingis’ trick serve. Leading the battered veteran Graf by 6-4, 2-0, Hingis impertinently went around to Graf’s side of the court to argue a call with the chair umpire. The French took it as yet another arrogant, in-your-face gesture from the punk-ish teenager who had set the tennis world ablaze.

You can see in the video that Hingis grins when she wins the point with the underhand serve, while a stunned John McEnroe mutters, “Anything to throw Steffi off,” and Chris Evert, sounding baffled, adds: “It would be one thing if she had an injury, a pulled stomach muscle or something. . .”

All in all, it was a temperate response from the commentators, if not from the passionate fans. Yet it once again raises the question I’ve asked repeatedly over the years: What’s so dishonorable about the underhand serve? It isn’t illegal, and if you want to stake your argument on the notion that the shovel serve is “unsportsmanlike,” my question would be, “Why?”

Granted, there’s long been a common conspiracy, traveling under the guise of a “gentleman’s agreement,” to keep the underhand serve taboo. Tennis still has such community standards and they can be more powerful than the actual rules. Some are more worthy than others. Another example is to ignore the hindrance rule in the WTA, because some of the top stars like to shriek and scream and bellow in a way that amounts to intimidation and affectation rather than honest effort.

If some players can grunt when they hit a drop shot, why can’t others hit an underhand serve?

Well, my gentleman’s disagreement suggests that this isn’t a very good reason to avoid the deceptive shot, and the first person who has the guts to challenge the convention will have the rules—and common sense—on his or her side.

After all, how can you heap scorn upon the underhand serve when it would most likely be used for precisely the same reasons that players hit drop shots that make fans swoon in appreciation?

The underhand serve would be a most useful weapon in the arsenal of any player who took the time to master and practice it. I keep thinking back to how, had he cultivated a drop-serve to go with his smoker, Andy Roddick might have triumphed over Roger Federer in the 2009 Wimbledon final. It might have given Federer one more thing to think about as Roddick tried to hold serve yet again at the end of that 30-game fifth set.

Any player with a big serve would benefit from having the underhand option, but so would any player of any stripe when he’s facing a returner who likes to hang back and take huge cuts. And the underhand serve could be deadly on clay. Think about it: Why should the returner be free to camp 10-feet behind the baseline, smug in the knowledge he’ll get to take a full swing at any serve that isn’t an ace?

My prediction is that, one day, Hingis is going to be toasted (instead of roasted) as the mother of the drop serve. I say this because, where Chang used his drop serve because he was somewhat incapacitated, Hingis used hers as a weapon. The only stress she was under was—not that it’s insignificant—mental and emotional.

After all, Hingis had the match under control and, supremely confident and perhaps a mite contemptuous of her rival, she let the prize get away from her. Also, Hingis’ underhand serve saved a match point. It’s an apt symbol of the power of any shot; a wimpy underhand serve no less than an emphatic ace.

I never would have guessed when I started covering tennis how radically the game would change, thanks partly some elements I wrote about in my column yesterday. So I have no trouble accepting the idea that somewhere out there, one or more enterprising developmental coach is training a protege in the art of hitting the underhand serve. I look forward to watching a player who can choose between ripping off a 150 M.P.H. missile and feathering over a delicate drop-serve.

Wikipedia lists the underhand serve as one of the various serves in tennis, but it also cautions, “The underhand serve is struck below shoulder level. . . although this serve is technically legal, it may be seen as cowardly and unsportsmanlike in adult tennis.”

But did you notice that both of the famous/infamous underhand serves won the point?

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