Is An Underarm Serve Allowed In Tennis? (Rules Explained)

5 June 2023

Tennis is a sport with numerous techniques and strategies to keep players on their toes. One such tactic, the underhand serve, has stirred up debate among fans and athletes alike. In tennis, players typically serve overhead with power and precision. However, the underhand serve has been utilized by some players to catch their opponents off guard. With its unexpected approach and differing trajectory, this type of serve often raises questions about its legality and sportsmanship within the tennis community.

Despite its unconventional nature, the underhand serve is allowed in tennis, according to the International Tennis Federation (ITF) rules. As long as the ball is struck before it hits the ground, a player can serve underhand without violating any rules.

While the legality of underhand serves is clear, its ethics and sportsmanship continue to be debated among tennis players and fans. Some argue that using an underhand serve is a strategic move, while others consider it disrespectful to the opponent.

Key takeaways:

  • Underhand serves are allowed in tennis, as long as the ball is struck before hitting the ground.
  • The technique continues to spark debates on sportsmanship and ethics within the tennis community.
  • Famous underhand serve moments have fueled discussions on its validity as a strategic move in the sport.

Are Underhand Serves Allowed in Tennis?

Underhand serves, though less common, are indeed a legal and valid tactic in tennis. This technique gained notoriety when Michael Chang famously used it to secure victory in the 1989 French Open against Ivan Lendl. According to the International Tennis Federation (ITF) rules, the only requirement when serving is to ensure the ball is struck "before the ball hits the ground."

Despite its legality, the underhand serve is often perceived as a controversial move, sometimes considered cowardly or weak, which may explain why it's not widely used among players.

That said, there are instances where renowned players and coaches like Judy Murray have praised the use of underhand serves, calling it "genius" in specific situations.

While adapting to the underhand serve may present a challenge to some players, opponents must remember that tennis is a game of strategy, skill, and adaptation.

In summary, the underhand serve remains a valid and legal technique within tennis, albeit with mixed opinions on its tactical value and sportsmanship.

Rules and Legality

International Tennis Federation regulations:

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) is the governing body responsible for regulating the rules of tennis. According to the ITF rules of tennis, an underarm serve is allowed in the game.

The rule states that the ball must be struck "before the ball hits the ground." As there is no specific restriction regarding overhand or underhand serving techniques, both are considered legal.

In addition to the ITF regulations, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) also confirms that underhand serves are permitted as there is "no restriction" on the serving technique. Although unconventional, underarm serving has been utilized effectively by professional players, such as Michael Chang, at the 1989 French Open.

Specific tournament rules:

While the ITF and USTA allow underhand serves, some specific tennis tournaments may have additional rules or guidelines that players must adhere to. It is crucial for the athletes to familiarize themselves with any particular tournament regulations ahead of time to avoid potential penalties or disputes during their service games.

During the serve, players are required to stand behind the baseline between the center mark and the sideline. As stated in the USTA Tennis Serving Rules, they must diagonal hit the serve into the service box on the other side of the net without stepping on or over the baseline before hitting it.

Regardless of the serving technique, players must avoid faults, which occur when the serve does not land within the service box or touches the net cord.

A let serve happens when the ball touches the net cord but still lands within the service box. In this case, the player gets another chance to serve. If a player serves an ace, it means that the serve was not returnable by their opponent, resulting in a point.

To conclude, underhand tennis serves are considered legal according to both ITF and USTA regulations. However, it is essential for players to be aware of any unique tournament rules and adjust their serving techniques accordingly.

Why do Tennis Players Serve Underhand?

Underhand serves in tennis are typically used as a strategic tactic to catch the opponent off guard. Though unconventional, the rules of tennis allow underhand serves, and they have been utilized in various competitive matches, such as the 1989 French Open, where Michael Chang defeated Ivan Lendl with such a technique.

The underhand serve can be particularly effective against players who stand far behind the baseline, expecting a powerful overhead serve. By serving underhand, the player can catch their opponent off guard, creating an unfavorable return or winning the point outright.

Prominent tennis players like Nick Kyrgios and Daniil Medvedev have also employed underhand serves to their advantage in matches.

To execute an underhand serve, players need to keep their ball toss low and leave the racket face open. This technique generates a different spin on the ball, potentially making it more challenging for the opponent to return. Additionally, the underhand serve can help conserve energy for players, particularly in long matches.

In summary, underhand serves in tennis are allowed and can be an effective tactic to surprise the opponent and secure points.

Please read this article to learn more about why tennis players serve underhand.

Why is Underarm Serve Disrespectful?

The underarm serve has long been a source of controversy in tennis. Some consider it a disrespectful tactic, while others argue it is simply another way to surprise opponents.

The primary reason why the underarm serve is often viewed as disrespectful is because it is considered unorthodox and a departure from the traditional powerful serves that dominate the sport.

Tennis fans and players alike expect the power, strength, and skill that come with traditional serves, making an underarm serve seem inferior by comparison. The notion is that it undermines the spirit of competition and the level of skill that is typically displayed in matches.

Another factor contributing to the underarm serve's negative perception is the belief that it exploits opponents' weaknesses. The tactic is particularly effective against players who stand far back in the court, as it takes advantage of their positioning.

This strategy can be viewed as unsportsmanlike, as it's considered a way for the server to gain an unfair advantage over the other player.

At times, the underarm serve has been associated with players who are known for their controversial behavior or attitude on the court. This association further tarnishes the reputation of the serve, causing it to be seen as a tactic employed by those who disregard the etiquette and norms of tennis.

For example, tennis stars like Nick Kyrgios and Andy Murray have voiced their support of the underarm serve, but their endorsement has done little to change its negative image.

However, many players and commentators argue that the underarm serve is a legitimate tactic that can be used strategically to keep opponents on their toes. Some even draw comparisons to other unorthodox strategies, like Roger Federer's SABR (Sneak Attack by Roger), which has not faced the same level of criticism.

In the end, the debate around the underarm serve's status as disrespectful largely comes down to personal opinions and the values held by those watching and participating in tennis.

Sportsmanship and Ethics

Respecting the sport:

Tennis is a game built on sportsmanship, which encompasses the values of fair play, respect, and honor. Adhering to these principles fosters a positive atmosphere both on and off the court.

Players are expected to make decisions that contribute to the overall integrity of the sport and to demonstrate good sportsmanship in every aspect of their game.

The underhand serve, though legal according to the International Tennis Federation (ITF) rules, can sometimes be a subject of dispute when it comes to sportsmanship. While it may be seen as an unconventional tactic, it can be argued that it's within the boundaries of the game and should be accepted as a strategic option that players are allowed to use.

Opponents' perspectives:

Tennis players, as well as fans, are often divided on the matter of underhand serves.

Opponents of the underhand serve argue that it's a move designed to catch the opposition off guard and can be seen as disrespectful. They believe that relying on deception rather than a well-executed, powerful serve goes against the spirit of fair competition.

On the other hand, some players, coaches, and fans view the underhand serve as a valid tactic that showcases skill, agility, and the ability to read the situation during a match. Prominent figures in the sport, such as Scottish coach Judy Murray, have even described the use of underhand serves as "genius."

As with many aspects of sports, perspectives may vary, but ultimately the decision lies with the individual player.

When facing an underhand serve, it's important that opponents maintain sportsmanlike conduct and respect the umpire's objective and unbiased rulings. Should a dispute arise, expressing concerns calmly and respectfully can help resolve the issue and maintain a positive atmosphere on the court.

Famous Underarm Serve Moments

Michael Chang vs. Ivan Lendl:

In the 1989 French Open, a 17-year-old Michael Chang faced Ivan Lendl, the then-world No. 1 player. Struggling with leg cramps, Chang decided to hit an underarm serve, which ultimately led to a win and helped catapult him to eventual victory in the tournament.

This moment is considered one of the most iconic underarm serves in tennis history.

Chang's underarm serve tactic:

  • Took Lendl by surprise
  • Allowed Chang to conserve energy
  • Garnered attention for its unusual strategy in high-level play

Nick Kyrgios controversies:

Nick Kyrgios, known for his antics on the tennis court, has also incorporated underarm serves in his matches.

In the 2019 Miami Open, Kyrgios executed a successful underarm serve against Rafael Nadal. Though Nadal was not pleased with the tactic, Kyrgios defended his serve, arguing that it was a legitimate strategy.

Kyrgios' other notable underhand serve instances:

  • 2019 Wimbledon match against Daniil Medvedev
  • 2020 Australian Open duel with Gilles Simon

While some tennis pundits and players criticize underarm serves as disrespectful or unsportsmanlike, others appreciate its strategic value.

For example, Judy Murray, mother and coach of Andy Murray, describes the underhand serve as "genius." Notably, rising tennis star Alexander Bublik also occasionally deploys the underarm serve.


Underarm serves are indeed allowed in tennis, as per the official rules. This unconventional approach is not only legal but also considered a valid tactic by various experts and professionals within the tennis community.

Though the underhand serve is less widely used than other types of serves, it remains a legal and strategic move that aligns with the rules of the game. The ITF rules clearly state that the ball must be struck before it hits the ground, making the underhand serve a permissible option for players.

In conclusion, while the underhand serve may not be the most common serving technique, it is a legitimate and legal option for tennis players. When applied skillfully, it can prove to be an effective strategy to surprise an opponent and gain an advantage in the match.


Would you like to learn more about tennis? If you do, have a look at the 107 best facts about tennis!

Written by

Neil Taylor

Tennis is my passion

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