Mackenzie McDonald had to do something different. Down in the dumps at 0-4 and a set down against Rafael Nadal, the king of clay.
He did what tennis players have been doing with alarming frequency at Roland Garros – instead of tossing the ball up and slamming it down the court, he flicked it underhand to start the fifth game. The ball looped in slow motion. Nadal made a dash for it and calmly dispatched a winner. It’s hard to deceive the king on clay, but the underarm serve – called a service à la cuillère (spoon serve) – is suddenly the flavor of Paris.
Alexander Bublik served an underarm ace in his first-round win over Gael Monfils; world No 5 Daniil Medvedev did it during his opening loss; Sara Errani resorted to it against Kiki Bertens in their draining match; Monica Niculescu pulled it out of the drawer on match point in her final qualifying round to enter the main draw.
It’s not a flavor to everyone’s liking. The service à la cuillère is to tennis what Mankading is to cricket. Perfectly legal, but do it, and open a can of moral worms.
Is that changing now? Long considered something that only children should do when they are first learning the game, it was rare to see it in the Pro circuit. Over the last year though, they have popped up more and more. Who else to lead the revolution but the divisive “bad boy” of tennis right now? True to his style, Kyrgios has been the face of the trend, using it against Nadal at Wimbledon and Acapulco last year. Bublik has carried the torch, using it multiple times this year as well.
Like Mankading, the underarm serve is frowned upon under the unwritten and invisible “spirit” of the game. Both have history.
The most well-known underarm serve in a Slam was born more out of compulsion than choice. Engaged in a physical five-set battle with world No 1 Ivan Lendl in the Round of 16 of the 1989 Roland Garros, a cramping Michael Chang knew his first serve was faltering. So serving at 4-3, 15-30, Chang spooned it out. The 17-year-old Chang won the point, the match and the tournament.
It was the only time Chang did it in his long career.
“It actually never crossed my mind to ever use it again,” Chang told ATPTour.com.
The serve is used more tactically now – to cash in on the opponent standing deep behind the baseline; to unsettle their rhythm; to simply catch them off guard. Tennis is a now a power game of vicious speed and extreme precision, and the underarm serve is everything that modern tennis is not. Instead of tossing it up to get into the service motion, the server quickly flicks the ball from near the ankle. Tweeting after Kyrgios used it to win key points against Serbian Dusan Lajovic at the 2019 Miami Open, Judy Murray, the renowned coach and mother of Andy Murray, enthused about the serve’s power to disrupt.
“The whole point of tennis competition is to disrupt your opponents game by applying pressure through changing the speed, spin, direction, depth or height of the ball. And that includes the serve. Kyrgios is a genius. I’m surprised more players don’t do it,” Judy wrote.
Why, then, do more players not do it?
A couple of factors: first, the risk of a backlash from fans, fellow colleagues and the tennis community at large. Second, unlike how it easy it appears for the ones watching, it requires practice to pull off with efficiency.
Martina Hingis was booed by the Paris crowd when she used it during her 1999 French Open final against Steffi Graf. 21-year-old Spaniard Alejandro Fokina earned the wrath of a Rio crowd earlier this year when he attempted two underarm serves during his match against Thiago Seyboth Wild.
Nadal also accused Kyrgios of lacking respect “for the public, the opponent and for himself” after his Acapulco defeat to the Australian which included the underarm serve. However, other top players like Roger Federer and Dominic Thiem, who have both been at the receiving end of the tactic, don’t see anything underhanded in it.
“Underarm is definitely a tactic, I believe. Especially when guys are hugging the fence in the back. From that standpoint, shouldn’t be ashamed if you try it out. Just look silly if you miss it sometimes,” Federer said last year.
And there lies the technical problem – something a child can do can look childish if it doesn’t land at the opposite side of the net and can backfire if an alert opponent reacts to it quickly. Like Nadal on Wednesday.
“A good underarm serve is very tough,” Bublik said after his match against Monfils. “I really practice.” In the same breath, he said it was 70 per cent luck. And safe to add, 100 per cent within the rules.