Why Do Tennis Players Serve Underhand? (Reasons Explained)

11 June 2023

In tennis, the serve is an important aspect of the game, and while the overhead serve often steals the spotlight, the underhand serve presents itself as a strategic alternative. Employed by both recreational and professional players, the underhand serve may catch opponents off guard and secure valuable points.

Throughout this article, we will examine the reasons behind tennis players opting for an underhand serve and how it can be advantageous in certain situations.

The underhand serve serves two purposes: short-term gains and long-term effects. In the short term, it aims to win a point by taking advantage of the opponent's position. A well-executed underhand serve can result in a slow ace when the opponent stands far back. In the long term, it introduces unpredictability, worrying the opponent and affecting their concentration or strategy.

Although deemed unconventional, underhand serves are becoming more accepted in the tennis community, with professional players increasingly adopting this tactic against specific opponents or in particular situations. Tennis enthusiasts might argue that the growing acceptance of the underhand serve is a sign of the game's constant evolution and tactical refinement, illustrating its benefits in both short-term points and long-term strategies.

Reasons for Using Underhand Serve

Disguising tactics:

An underhand serve can catch opponents off guard due to its unconventional nature. Players like Nick Kyrgios have used this technique to add an element of surprise to their game.

The underhand serve can also be strategic in giving the opponent something else to worry about while playing, potentially impacting their performance and confidence.

Drop shot effects:

The underhand serve can be an effective way to produce a drop shot effect, especially when the opponent is standing far back from the baseline.

By reducing the ball's speed and trajectory, a well-executed underhand serve can result in a point-winning shot, as the opponent might struggle to reach and return it in time. This tactic has been successfully employed by players such as Alexander Bublik in professional matches.

Physical limitations:

Some players may opt for an underhand serve due to physical limitations or injuries that prevent them from executing an overhead serve effectively.

For example, Sara Errani struggled with her service motion due to a shoulder injury, leading her to adopt the underhand technique as an alternative. Additionally, using an underhand serve can help conserve energy during long matches, as it requires less effort than the traditional overhead serve. This may be particularly beneficial for players like Ivo Karlovic, who rely on powerful serving as a significant aspect of their game.

While this type of serve may not be as prevalent in professional tennis, the underarm serve is allowed and can offer strategic advantages and accommodate physical limitations.

By employing this technique, players can diversify their game and keep their opponents guessing, potentially leading to increased success on the court.

Impact on Opponents

Serving underhand in tennis can create a significant impact on opponents psychologically and tactically. When executed well, an underhand serve can disrupt the rhythm and focus of the receiving player, potentially causing them to worry more about the serve's variety than their own return strategy.

One of the main benefits of incorporating an underhand serve is that it functions as a surprise tactic. Since most servers deliver powerful overhead serves, an underhand serve can catch an opponent off guard, particularly if they're standing too far back from the baseline.

In this scenario, an underhand serve can function like a service equivalent of a drop shot, keeping the receiver on their toes and forcing them to approach the net unexpectedly.

Aside from its immediate shock value, the underhand serve offers long-term strategic advantages as well. Once a player has demonstrated their ability and willingness to serve underhand, their opponent must constantly worry about the possibility of encountering another one.

This added layer of uncertainty can create mental stress for the receiver, possibly leading to errors and a diminished ability to anticipate serves effectively.

It is important to note that the effectiveness of the underhand serve relies heavily on the skill of the server. A poorly executed underhand serve can be counterproductive, eliciting an easy return or even a double fault.

Thus, the server must practice and refine their underhand technique in order to properly utilize this tactic.

In summary, the impact of an underhand serve on opponents stems from its ability to surprise, disrupt, and create an element of doubt in the mind of the receiving player. Serving underhand provides tactical variety and induces mental pressure, which can give the server an edge over their opponent in both short-term point scoring and long-term match strategy.

History of Underhand Serve

Michael Chang:

In the history of tennis, one of the most famous instances of an underhand serve occurred during the 1989 French Open.

Michael Chang, a young American tennis player, faced off against Ivan Lendl in the fourth round of the prestigious tournament. Chang was suffering from severe cramps during the match but managed to utilize strategic underhand serves to throw off Lendl's rhythm and ultimately secure a victory.

This legendary moment not only surprised Lendl but also made tennis history, as Chang went on to become the youngest male singles champion in Grand Slam history.

Ivan Lendl:

Ivan Lendl, a top-seeded player during the 1989 French Open, was known for his powerful and accurate serves.

In contrast, the underhand serve, which is designed to catch an opponent off-guard and disrupt their rhythm, was not part of his typical arsenal. The tactic employed by Chang during their match left Lendl unsettled and contributed to his defeat.

Though the underhand serve has been employed since the early days of tennis, it remains a relatively unconventional and controversial tactic. Players who utilize it do so with both short-term and long-term goals in mind.

In the short term, the underhand serve serves as the service equivalent of a drop shot, potentially resulting in a low-speed ace if the opponent is far behind the baseline. In the long term, its use can disrupt an opponent's focus and cause them to worry about the unexpected serve.

In summary, the underhand serve has been a part of tennis history; however, it gained significant attention in the 1989 French Open when Michael Chang employed it against Ivan Lendl. The tactic remains controversial but can be an effective tool to catch opponents off guard and disrupt their focus during a match.

Techniques and Execution

In this section, we explore the technique and execution of underhand serves in tennis. We will discuss the use of sidespin and slice, the placement in the service box, and the comparison to overhead serves.

Sidespin and slice:

An essential aspect of the underhand serve is incorporating sidespin and slice. Sidespin is generated by brushing the racket across the ball during contact, creating a lateral spin.

A slice is produced by hitting the ball with a slightly open racket face, creating a combination of backspin and sidespin. The goal of these spins is to make the ball behave unpredictably when it bounces, making it more challenging for the opponent to return.

  1. Stand closer to the baseline: Unlike the overhead serve, an underhand serve requires the server to be closer to the baseline before striking.
  2. Keep the ball toss low: A low ball toss is crucial for executing an underhand serve effectively. Keep the ball at waist level and allow it to drop onto the racket face.

Service box and placement:

The primary goal of the underhand serve is to catch the opponent off guard, which can be extremely effective if executed with precision.

Aim the serve diagonally to land in the corners of the service box or near the lines; this will force the opponent to reach and adapt to the unexpected change in service style.

  • Placement: Aiming for the corners of the service box and landing the ball close to the lines can help catch the opponent off guard.
  • Mixing it up: Varying the placement of the underhand serve and combining it with other serving styles adds more complexity to the game and keeps the opponent guessing4.

Overhead vs. Underhand:

The underhand serve is generally considered less powerful than the overhead serve. However, it can be an excellent tactical choice when facing opponents who expect a faster, more powerful serve.

Some benefits of underhand serve include:

  • Surprising the opponent: If used sparingly, an underhand serve can be an effective tactic to disrupt an opponent's rhythm and force them to react quickly to an unexpected serve.
  • Reducing stress on the arm: As the underhand serve uses less power than an overhead serve, it can help reduce stress on the arm, especially for players experiencing discomfort or pain in their serve arm.

Practice and Adaptation

In professional tennis, practice, and adaptation are crucial for tennis players to stay competitive. One such adaptation that players have started using more frequently is the underhand serve.

An underhand serve serves two purposes: winning a single point and giving the opponent something to worry about, potentially distracting them, or changing their strategy.

To effectively incorporate the underhand serve into their game, tennis players initially spend substantial time practicing this technique.

For a successful underhand serve, players must keep the ball toss low, leave their racket face open, and use a continental grip to create enough height to clear the net. Throughout their practice, they focus on perfecting these elements, ensuring consistency and accuracy during matches.

An underhand serve can be particularly useful against opponents who stand way back from the baseline, as it may catch them off-guard and cause them to lose a point. This tactic can create pressure on professional tennis players and force adjustments to their positioning and strategies, ultimately granting an advantage to the server.

It's essential to note that underhand serves might not be effective for every tennis player. Players need to practice and assess their own skill set and comfort with the technique, ensuring it aligns with their overall game strategy.

For instance, some players might find more success in focusing on other aspects of their game rather than incorporating underhand serves. It's crucial for tennis players to strike a balance between using an underhand serve and understanding when it might not be the best option in a particular situation.

Adaptation and improvement are key to success in tennis. By honing their skills and incorporating various serving techniques, like the underhand serve, tennis players can keep their opponents on their toes and gain a competitive advantage on the court.

Rules and Legality

Underhand serves in tennis are often met with skepticism, leading some to question their legality and ethical implications.

However, underhand serving is allowed in professional tennis, as stated in the ITF rules. The rule specifies that as long as the ball is hit with the racket before hitting the ground, it doesn't matter whether it was released in an upward or downward motion.

Though legal, underhand serves are still considered unconventional and, in some cases, borderline cheating. This perception comes from the fact that they are used rarely by professionals, and when employed, it's often as a surprise tactic. 

Leading Scottish coach Judy Murray supports the idea of the underhand serve as a valid tactic in modern tennis, describing its use as "genius." However, opinions on its ethical implications remain divided.

In terms of tactical benefits, an underhand serve serves two primary purposes:

  • Short-term goal: winning a single point by catching the opponent off guard while they are positioned far behind the baseline. The underhand serve can function as a service drop shot.
  • Long-term goal: creating doubt and concern in the opponent's mind, forcing them to constantly think about and anticipate the underhand serve. This constant anticipation might lead to disruptions in their overall game.

Despite the division, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and the United States Tennis Association (USTA) stand firm in their position that underhand serves are legal. There is no restriction on the manner in which the ball is struck as long as it is before hitting the ground.

Consequently, although unconventional and controversial, underhand serves remain a legitimate part of tennis, offering both strategic advantages and challenges for players who choose to employ it.


The underhand serve in tennis has been a subject of debate and discussion for many years. While it is a less common serving technique compared to the overhead serve, it can be just as effective in certain situations.

One reason players may choose to serve underhand is when facing opponents who stand far back from the baseline, as it can throw off their rhythm and timing.

Using an underhand serve can also serve as a strategic move, by keeping the opponent guessing and adding an element of surprise. This approach can disrupt the opponent's focus and force them to adjust their gameplay, resulting in potential unforced errors or strategic vulnerabilities.

However, using an underhand serve is not without its drawbacks. Some may view the tactic as unsportsmanlike or unethical, even though it is a legal move. Additionally, players who are not adept at executing underhand serves risk giving away easy points to their opponents.

In conclusion, the underhand serve is a legitimate and potentially effective tactic way to serve in tennis, but it is important for players to know when to use it to their advantage. By balancing surprise and strategic play, tennis players can leverage the benefits of underhand serves while minimizing potential risks.

Written by

Neil Taylor

Tennis is my passion

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