Is Underhand Underhanded?

With Jimmy Parker

Is throwing in an underhanded serve acceptable or somehow underhanded?

Why Not?

My regular doubles partner, Chuck Kinyon, 30-year Dartmouth tennis coach was giving a clinic to players at his Naples housing development and was teaching this serve.

He said, “I don’t know why more people don’t use it when: the sun in their eyes, their shoulder hurts, they are missing their serves, or just as a changeup.”

Like a Drop Shot?

When you think about it, how is it different from throwing in a surprise drop shot during a singles baseline rally?  Sure, too many drop shots become “less than fun,” but it is a solidly acceptable tactic to use.  Jim Courier just said this week, when asked that question, “Sure, the drop shot is just another tool in the tool box to use.”

World class senior tournament player Jimmy Parker is “known for” using the underhanded serve during matches.  Most players I hear from criticize him for using it (especially when he is killing his opponent) – and I have been known to offer the same viewpoint – but when you think about it, WHY NOT? Your thoughts?

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18 thoughts on “Is Underhand Underhanded?

  1. Did George just throw me under the bus?

    I do like to teach it to beginners and intermediate players that struggle with hitting the ball out of hand. Also, its a great way to teach and have players understand spin. You can hit with your forehand and backhand. It can also be looped high with topspin.

    When watching Nadal play Anderson recently, Nadal was playing as far back in the court as possible returning Anderson’s big serve. Would have been fun to see Anderson throw in an underhand serve and watch how the point developed.

    Chuck, noooo, i made you the driver of the bus! I think teaching it is a good idea! george

  2. Why would anyone criticize a player for using a completely legal shot? That a player as accomplished as Jimmy Parker uses it only amplifies its value.

    Sad to see adult tennis players act so immature. Where do these ill-informed notions come from?

    Joel, i agree; but don’t remember ever seeing you use that serve?? george

  3. Totally fine………..and usually the only folks grumbling about it are those who get burned by it.

  4. I am having to decide whether to serve more underhanded or teach myself to serve left handed. My ortho tells me the only way to correct my shoulder is a complete replacement. He is also honest enough to tell there is still no guarantee. I’m still making my mind up and since I can still do groundies and volleys I’m not sure.
    I don’t want to stop playing!!!!!

    Ron, i friend of mine switched to lefty and ended up good enough to play tournaments! george

  5. Have another look at Chang v Lendl in Paris, not just that Chang served underarm but the way he did it with a sudden sneaky movement clearly intended to deceive his opponent – within the rules but not the spirit of the game & it’s the spirit which supersedes everything, at least that’s the way I look at it. Besides which any able-bodied player should be able to serve in the ‘normal’ fashion & if he/she can’t/won’t maybe try tiddlywinks instead !

    Howard, i am shocked! You, of all people, are against a legal strategy that works! 🙂 george

  6. I think the bad feelings about it is when it at least appears to be a “quick serve” , a serve you were not expecting to start heading towards you yet. I think a ‘quick serve” whether underhanded or not is unethical. It is different to surprise an opponent with a change up serve versus exploding into the serve from a perceived non ready to serve position.

    Winder, you have a point… the underhanded serve sometimes does come off as a quick serve and the receiver is not ready. george

  7. I have a rotator cuff tear and cannot hit any shot on my forehand side without using two hands. That includes serving…. even underhand. So, I hit the equivalent of a swinging forehand volley with two hands. I have to be wary of a drop-shot return, though, as my opponent is expecting it. At least it keeps me in the game.

    Susie, sorry to hear about your injury; but am glad you are “coping”! george

  8. Once again, George has fueled a lively dialogue. Well done, George.

    Agree with Winder about this potentially being an inappropriate form of quick-serving. Not good.

    Kindly disagree with Howard about Chang’s ’89 serve. Have watched that many times and hardly feel it was inappropriately deceptive. BTW, Chang once told that was the only time in his career he ever hit an underhand serve.

    As for me, George, perhaps I’ve got enough spin-nuisance with my lefty serve that I don’t need to hit. Also not sure if in a pressure situation I’d have enough ownership of fine motor skills to effectively pull off that serve. Better instead to rely on the big motor skills of the conventional delivery.

    Also: Anyone ever play around with a backhand underhand serve? Think of it like feeding a slice backhand.

    Thanks again, George, for bringing up this topic.

    Joel, the “backhand underhand serve” sounds even more challenging (since you have to hit it out of the air, and cannot let it bounce)! george

  9. It ain’t ‘cricket’ as we say over here ! As it happens there is a similar debate going on in the cricketing world about whether it is ‘fair’ that a batsman can suddenly switch from a right handed stance to a left handed one, or vice versa, just as the bowler is about to release the ball. You can guess which side of the argument I’m on. Call me immature or ill-informed if you like, but I prefer a more traditional view. Can you imagine Newk or Emmo or Rosewall or Hoad or Stolle behaving like Chang ?

    Howard, what was unacceptable (in many areas) thirty years ago, is now commonplace. Don’t you think? george

  10. There is nothing inherently wrong with an underhand serve. We should not even need to be discussing this.

    What makes it noteworthy is only a vestige of what used to be called “Tennis etiquette” – that is the group of do’s and don’ts, some written but many not, that for many years controlled what we are supposed to do and not do on the tennis court. Just like, to this day, we instinctively raise our hand and say “sorry” when our net cord shot luckily drops in as an unintentional winner, so too has it traditionally not been felt to be “sporting” to use an underhanded serve. This I believe is the real objection to the serve. It just seems kind of unfair.

    To be sure, there have always been circumstances when even traditional tennis etiquette has not had a problem with underhanded service. Elderly players for whom physical constraints prevent overhand serving and people with shoulder and arm injuries come to mind. But barring a good excuse like this, there has always been a certain stigma when someone serves underhand. It is kind of like shooting before you are supposed to when fighting a duel.

    However, we no longer fight fuels and everybody knows you are not really “sorry” when your net cord shot drops in for a winner. So I think the underhanded service will likely go the same way and we will see more of it in tournament play in the future. And there is nothing wrong with that.

    Marty, i think you are right on all those points! george

  11. One of the questions is how will your regular buddies like your serving underhanded .

    Bob, or your tournament opponents! george

  12. To Winder Bill’s point, can the receiver ask the point to be replayed if he feels he was deceived — and made unready — by the service motion?

    Terry, i believe, that if you catch the ball and NOT attempt to return it, you can claim “not ready.” Any official response?? george

  13. I have used the underhand serve on a couple of occasions when the sun was just incredibly bad and I was having a really tough time of it. On those occasions I’ve warned my opponent on the change-over that I “might” be doing it, and have made pains to be obvious about it. However, because I never actually practice the underhand serve it was never effective and I just went back to squinting into the sun and seeing shiny bubbles afterwards.

    Terry, yes, it seems it is something now that we have to apologize for. Will it change? george

  14. Regarding Joel’s point on the backhand underhand serve, I will go one better. I used to play in a singles league back in the 90s with a guy who had injured his rotator cuff (playing longstanding tennis) in his right shoulder, and then he had a skiing accident and tore a part of his rotator cuff in his left shoulder as well. He is naturally right handed, but is nearly ambidextrous.

    Anyway, long story short, he did not want to give up tennis while he rehabbed both injuries — I don’t believe he ever had surgery — so for about a year he served four (4) (FOUR!!) different kinds of underhand serves in every match: (1) Right handed underhand regular slice; (2) right handed underhand backhand slice; (3) left handed underhand regular slice; and (4) left handed underhand backhand slice.

    It was nutty trying to read his delivery. You knew the serve was going to be underhanded, that it was going to be short, and that it was going to be a slice — that much was a given. But beyond that, you had no idea where the ball was going to land in the service box, whether the spin would break away from you to the right or the left, whether the spin would bounce into your body from either the right or the left, etc. It made for some interesting receiving choices and strategies. However, the two critical things that were missing for my opponent was the element of real surprise and the fact that there were limits to how much pace he could put on the serve.

    Now my friend’s shoulders are healed and he is back serving overhand. But he still occasionally will hit a funky underhand shot every now and then, and he can still do it using either hand and both conventionally and as a backhand shot. Now that he has the element of surprise, he will often win the point when he does that.

    Marty, sorry, but i had to shorten your “short story”. george

  15. The backhand, underhand serve. Key here, to me, is that you need the “other” foot in front in order to make it “comfortable”. When Mansour Bahrami intentionally “whiffs” the serve and then comes back up and hits that backhand slice before the ball hits the ground, he has always stepped forward, getting his right foot in front. Nobody calls him on the foot fault. 🙂

    Interestingly, you can get a similar result with a *very* low toss, out to the right, and using an exaggerated slice serve motion. Done well, it still acts like a drop shot, and it’s hard to complain that it’s a “quick” serve, as the motion is basically the same as with a “regular” serve. It’s fun to pull out when the opponent has backed way up so as to wait for the “kicker” to come back down to a more manageable height. Spin can be *so* much fun. 🙂 Actually might have a video of same. . .

    Kevin, i regularly use that slow, wide spinner in the deuce court as a change-up… and do get some “comments” from my opponents! george

  16. Last year I played in the Canadian Nationals when I tore two tendons in my right elbow during my singles match. I was not able to continue to play but tried doubles anyhow two days later. I served underhanded. We almost won, in spite of having serious pain and I could only hit backhands. The underhanded serve which I used was quite successful, to my own surprise. It works if done well. Now I am back to my regular overhead serve. Maybe I should try the underhanded serve once in a while again.

    Klaus, if it works…. george

  17. Thanks George !!! I broke my arm in High school and was allowed to play basketball with
    a soft cast. I found it pretty easy to adapt.I still managed to score and foul shooting
    only fell off a couple points.I had to put in some extra work before and after practice
    and was lucky to have a team mgr. that would come early and stay after with me.
    I understand that learning new skills at 16 is much easier than 67!!!
    I got a football this morning at church and will start throwing tomorrow, the grip
    needed to pass is very much like a continental grip. I guess being a high school QB
    may turn out to be handy!!!

    Ron, great. Keep us posted. George

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