What Is An Underhand Serve In Tennis? (Fully Explained)

7 June 2023

The underhand serve, a lesser-known and sometimes controversial technique, adds an element of surprise to tennis matches. Unlike the traditional overhead serve, this unique method involves dropping the ball and hitting it with an underhand motion while the follow-through remains below the shoulder. This strategic shot catches opponents off guard, particularly when they expect an overhead serve and standing far behind the baseline to return the ball.

An underhand serve in tennis is a type of serve where the player throws the ball into the air and hits it with an upward swing of the racket from below the waist. The ball travels over the net and into the opponent's service box. It is a less common and often underestimated serve.

Key takeaways:

  • The underhand serve is a unique and often unexpected tennis technique involving an underhand motion and below-the-shoulder follow-through.
  • While considered unconventional, it boasts a notable history and is permitted within tennis rules when used strategically.
  • The various techniques, strategies, and player reactions surrounding underhand serves contribute to its continued relevance and ongoing discussions in the tennis community.

Understanding the Underhand Serve

Characteristics of an underhand serve:

The underhand serve, also known as the underarm serve, is a unique tennis serve technique that is less commonly used in tennis matches.

This type of serve uses a different service motion than the standard overhead serve. With the underhand serve, the contact point and follow-through occur below the shoulder level, making it a more discreet and unpredictable shot.

Players may choose to utilize the underhand serve as a strategic weapon, particularly against opponents who tend to stand far back in the court to receive serves.

A key characteristic of the underhand serve is the grip, which is usually the Eastern or Continental grip, similar to what is used for a forehand groundstroke. The proper stance for an underhand serve consists of placing the feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with the back foot lined up behind the baseline. The player's weight should be evenly distributed between both feet to generate power while maintaining control over the serve's direction.

During the swing technique, the player releases the ball from their non-dominant hand and smoothly swings their racket upwards from below the waist. The point of contact with the ball is crucial in generating the desired spin and speed for an effective underhand serve.

Finally, the player follows through with their racket in a fluid motion, completing the serve.

Understanding the legal serve requirements:

An underhand serve is allowed as long as it meets the standard tennis serve requirements. According to USTA, underhand serving is allowed in tennis matches, although it is unconventional. The legality is primarily focused on the ball being struck before it hits the ground and the serve's overall correctness rather than the specific technique used.

One notable example of a player successfully using the underhand serve is Michael Chang, who won the 1989 French Open after defeating Ivan Lendl using this technique.

It is essential for players to notify their opponents if they plan to use the underhand serve, as it is considered sneaky in some regions and may cause suspicion if not explicitly communicated.

The underhand serve offers multiple advantages but should be used strategically to keep the opponent guessing and off-balance. While mastering the technique may take time and practice, it can be an effective and surprising weapon in a tennis player's arsenal.

History of the Underhand Serve

The underhand serve has its roots in the early days of tennis, when the sport was played indoors and focused on touch and finesse.

Although it has mostly been replaced by the more powerful overhead serve, the underhand serve still plays a role in modern tennis, particularly as a surprise tactic or when a player is struggling with their regular serve.

Famous instances in tennis history:

One of the most famous instances of the underhand serve occurred during the 1989 French Open. In a match against Ivan Lendl, 17-year-old Michael Chang relied on the underhand serve to help him secure an important point during a critical moment in the match.

Chang went on to win the tournament, becoming the youngest men's singles champion at a Grand Slam event.

Since then, other players have occasionally employed the underhand serve, often to catch their opponents off guard. Australian player Nick Kyrgios is perhaps the most notable, as he frequently uses the unconventional serve to capitalize on an opponent's positioning or to disrupt their rhythm (source).

The underhand serve remains a useful yet controversial tool in tennis, admired by some for its tactical cleverness and criticized by others as unsportsmanlike.

Despite differing opinions, it is clear that the underhand serve has cemented its place in tennis history, with memorable moments like Chang's victory at the French Open and the continued use of the tactic by players like Kyrgios.

Rules and Regulations

Official tennis serve rules:

According to the International Tennis Federation (ITF) rules, a serve in tennis must be struck before the ball hits the ground, which allows for both overhand and underhand serves.

The server is required to stand behind the baseline and serve diagonally into the opponent's service box. An underhand serve follows the same basic rules but is executed differently than an overhead serve. The ball toss is kept low, usually kept at waist level, while the racket face remains open as the ball is struck by the server.

When serving, a player must follow additional rules such as hitting the ball without touching the net or any part of their body or clothing. If the serve hits the net and lands in the correct service box, it is considered a let, and the player is allowed to attempt another serve without being penalized.

Common misconceptions and myths:

A common misconception regarding underhand serves is that they are considered sneaky or devious, especially in the UK or Europe. This belief may stem from the historical notion that a player intending to use an underhand serve should inform their opponent in advance.

However, there is no official rule requiring such notification, and it is perfectly legal to use an underhand serve without announcing it beforehand.

Another myth surrounding the underhand serve is the idea that it is unsportsmanlike or unethical to use it. Despite being unconventional, underhand serves are a legal strategy employed by some professional players in the past, such as Michael Chang.

The primary intent of using an underhand serve is to catch the opponent off-guard or take advantage of their positioning.

In conclusion, underhand serves are a legal and viable serving technique in tennis, following the same rules and regulations as its overhand counterpart. Although some misconceptions and myths might suggest otherwise, players are free to choose the serving style that best suits their game and strategy.

Techniques and Variations

Executing an underhand serve:

The underhand serve in tennis is a strategic weapon, particularly useful for beginners and those who aim to catch their opponent off guard.

To execute a proper underhand serve, players must adopt the continental grip, which allows for better control and placement of the ball. The stance should be relaxed, with the server's body facing the net and the feet shoulder-width apart.

The server should gently toss the ball and use a smooth swing, ensuring the racquet face remains open to create just enough height to clear the net and land in the opposite service box.

Incorporating various techniques like forehand, backhand, and sidespin can further improve the effectiveness of an underhand serve. For instance, adding a subtle sidespin to the serve can cause the ball to deviate from a predictable trajectory, making it more challenging for the opponent to react and anticipate the ball's movement.

Variations in underhand serve techniques:

There are numerous variations in underhand serve techniques that players can employ to add diversity and unpredictability to their game.

One such variation is the slice serve, which involves applying slight backspin to the ball, causing it to skid upon bouncing, and making it difficult for the opponent to return. This low and fast trajectory makes the slice underhand serve particularly effective on grass courts, where the ball bounces lower and skids more.

Integrating a drop shot technique into the underhand serve can be another effective variation. By executing a soft touch on the ball with minimal follow-through, the server can cause the ball to bounce short and low in the opponent's service box, forcing them to quickly approach the net and potentially opening up the court for an attacking shot.

One important aspect of mastering underhand serves is mastering the art of disguise. Disguising an underhand serve can be achieved by using a similar stance and racquet preparation as a typical overhand serve, making it hard for the opponent to anticipate the underhand motion.

This element of surprise can catch the opponent off guard, providing a tactical advantage to the server.

In conclusion, mastering the underhand serve in tennis involves learning the basic execution, adapting various techniques, and incorporating different variations. By leveraging forehand, backhand, sidespin, slice, drop shot, and disguise, players can create a diverse and challenging game for their opponents, making the underhand serve a strategic and powerful weapon on the tennis court.

Strategies and Tactics

When to use the underhand serve:

The underhand serve is a strategic weapon in tennis that, when used correctly, can provide a unique advantage. It is particularly useful when opponents are standing far behind the baseline, expecting a powerful serve.

The underhand serve can catch them off guard, causing them to rush towards the net to return the ball. This serve is most effective when used sparingly, to surprise the opponent and keep them guessing. Timing is crucial, as players should watch for moments when their opponent is either overly aggressive or caught out of position.

Additionally, underhand serves can be useful when dealing with windy conditions or when the server is experiencing physical discomfort or fatigue affecting their regular service game.

Combining underhand serves with other tennis serve styles:

While the underhand serve offers players some tactical advantages, it's essential to integrate this serve style into a broader range of techniques. By employing various serve styles, such as flat, slice, and kick serves, players force their opponents to adapt continuously to different ball trajectories and deliveries.

The key is to find a balance between underhand serves and other serve styles to optimize the tactical benefits:

  • Flat serves: These powerful serves are often used as a player's primary weapon for winning points outright or setting up a favorable position. Mixing in the occasional underhand serve can catch the opponent off guard when they're anticipating a fast, flat serve.
  • Slice serves: These serves add lateral movement to the ball, making it challenging for the opponent to return. An underhand serve with some sidespin can complement a slice serve strategy, further adding to the variety of serves the opponent must face.
  • Kick serves: This high-bouncing serve can push players back in the court, forcing them to return the ball from an awkward position. When the opponent starts expecting a kick serve, introducing a soft underhand serve can disrupt their rhythm.

By combining underhand serves with a variety of other serve styles, players can maximize their tactical advantages on the court. Continual practice is crucial to ensure that each serve type is executed effectively and maintains an element of surprise.

Controversies and Player Reactions

Opinions on the use of underhand serves:

The underhand serve has been a topic of discussion and controversy among tennis players and fans alike. The tactic, which is legal in tennis, has been utilized by some players, such as Nick Kyrgios to catch their opponents off-guard.

However, players like Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and others have varying opinions about this serve.

For example, some players like Kyrgios and Daniil Medvedev have successfully employed the underhand serve in their matches, taking advantage of their opponents' far-back positioning to catch them by surprise.

Moreover, Alexander Bublik has been known to attempt the underhand serve as a strategic move during the US Open.

On the other hand, some tennis professionals have regarded the tactic as potentially disrespectful or unsportsmanlike, with criticisms often focused on whether it detracts from the spirit of the game. Nonetheless, legends like Federer acknowledge the legality of the underhand serve, emphasizing that it is ultimately the server's decision to employ it as a strategy.

In contrast, Rafael Nadal expressed his disdain for the underhand serve, viewing it as a sign of disrespect to one's opponent.

Reactions from tennis fans range from amusement to outrage, depending on their perspective and loyalty to a specific player. Overall, the use of the underhand serve remains a divisive issue within the tennis community, with strong opinions on both sides.

Despite the controversy, it is important to remember that the underhand serve is a legally permissible tactic within the rules of tennis, and each player has the right to choose their serving strategy.

The ongoing debate about its appropriateness highlights the complexities of the sport and the differing philosophies among its competitors and audience.

Notable Players and Their Underhand Serves

Popularizing the underhand serve:

Michael Chang is often credited with popularizing the underhand serve in modern tennis. He famously used this tactic during the 1989 French Open, defeating Ivan Lendl in a five-set battle.

Chang's underhand serve caught Lendl off guard and ultimately helped him secure the victory. Since then, several players have adopted the underhand serve as part of their game.

Sara Errani has also used the underhand serve on multiple occasions, most notably at Wimbledon and the Davis Cup. Errani's adaptation of the serve showcases how different players have utilized this technique for their own benefits.

Rising trend in modern tennis:

In recent years, the underhand serve has experienced a resurgence in popularity among professional tennis players.

One significant proponent is Nick Kyrgios, who often surprises opponents with his infamous underhand serve. This unpredictable and unorthodox tactic can catch opponents off guard, yielding a strategic advantage on the court.

Other notable players who have experimented with the underhand serve include Ivo Karlovic and John Isner. Both players are known for their powerful serves, but occasionally incorporating an underhand serve can create unpredictable plays by mixing up their usual serve routine.

The underhand serve's rising trend in modern tennis highlights its potential as a strategic tool and underlines the importance of versatility in a player's skill set. This unassuming serve has demonstrated its effectiveness on numerous occasions, as seen through the successes of players like Errani, Karlovic, and Isner.


The underhand serve in tennis is a unique and somewhat unconventional strategy, but can be highly effective when executed correctly. This type of serve is generally performed with a lower contact point and follow-through below the shoulder, differentiating it from more commonly used overhead serves.

In tennis history, the underhand serve has gained notoriety due to its effectiveness in certain situations. One such example is when Michael Chang used it to win the 1989 French Open against Ivan Lendl. This shows that, although not commonly employed, there are potential advantages to using this technique.

Underhand serves can catch opponents off guard, and might be especially beneficial for beginners who are still mastering their service technique. Some of the keys to a successful underhand serve include using the appropriate grip, stance, swing technique, and placement.

However, it is important to recognize the potential drawbacks of the underhand serve, such as its less powerful nature and the potential for opponents to adapt to this serving style. As a tennis player, understanding the right situations and opponents against which to use the underhand serve can prove to be a valuable asset in one's arsenal.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does an underhand serve work?

An underhand serve in tennis uses a different service motion than most overhead serves. The contact point and follow-through travel below the shoulder, making it the least commonly used serve technique in tennis matches. To perform an underhand serve, a player must use a specific grip, stance, and swing technique, aiming for successful placement and power.

Is underhand serve legal in tennis?

Yes, underhand serves are legal in tennis. They are considered a strategic weapon, particularly for beginners learning the nuances of the game. There is no specific rule against using an underhand serve, but it is important for players to understand when and how to use it effectively.

Why could underhand serve be seen as disrespectful?

There is a perception among some players and spectators that the underhand serve is disrespectful or unsportsmanlike, mainly because it is uncommon and may be seen as a "trick" play. However, it serves a tactical and strategic purpose in matches, especially when it is used effectively to outmaneuver opponents.

What are the benefits of underhand serve?

The underhand serve has several benefits: it can be a surprise tactic, particularly if an opponent is positioned further behind the baseline; it has the potential to force an opponent to make errors when receiving the serve; and it can create an additional layer of tactical depth in a player's game. By mastering the underhand serve, a player can add variety to their serve repertoire and create a more unpredictable game for opponents.

Written by

Neil Taylor

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