Not much could make basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain look like a “sissy” on the court. The 7’1 phenom ruled the 60s, ushering in rule changes and rewriting record books. But the one glitch in the offensive force was his free-throws. Chamberlain finished with a 51.1% success rate, except for that one night in March, 1962, when he threw underhand and made 28 of the 32 attempts. Chamberlain, however, reverted back to throwing overhand (badly) in the later seasons and explained the decision in his autobiography.
“I felt silly, like a sissy, shooting underhanded. I know I was wrong. I know some of the best foul shooters in history shot that way. Even now the best one in the NBA, Rick Barry, shoots underhanded,” Chamberlain wrote. “I just couldn’t do it.”
The apologetic clarification was similar to the one by American tennis player Jared Donaldson, who pulled a Michael Chang at last year’s French Open, trying an underarm serve against Grigor Dimitrov. Like Chang, Donaldson was cramping. But unlike Chang, who was 17 when he sprang it on world No. 1 Ivan Lendl in the fifth set, won the match and the tournament in 1989, Donaldson lost the tie, causing no real furore.
“I would never try it if I was feeling 100 per cent and stuff, but obviously Grigor was playing so far back on the return that I felt like maybe it’s just something to try. And I think honestly it just surprised him. He obviously wasn’t expecting it, you know what I mean? It was kind of a cheeky way to get a point,” said Donaldson.
Perhaps Rafael Nadal expected a similar response from Nick Kyrgios, when he blasted tennis’ resident rogue for “(lacking) respect for the public, the rival and towards himself.” That Kyrgios’ underarm serve essentially had no impact on the 3-6, 7-6, 7-6 scoreline in Acapulco was already of academic interest. The debate raged on over the morality of the surprise tactic, often derided in professional tennis as a sneaky plot; never mind that the shot is a viable, effective tactic against a returner of Nadal’s calibre.
He has won a higher percentage of first serve (35.4%) and second serve return points (56.1%) than any other player over the last 52 weeks. The 17-time Grand Slam champion has always been a deep returner, but lately Nadal stands a foot from the back wall, often almost out of the camera frame. You could park a Toyota Fortuner between Nadal and the baseline as the Spaniard prepares to return.
The unconventional positioning allows Nadal split-second more to react to big-serving Isners and Andersons of the world, and removes the incentive for them to go for big second serves. It also gives Nadal more time to change the grip between his two-handed backhand and the full forehand grip.
Players have found ways to punish him for the ground he gives up. Giles Muller served wide to Nadal’s backhand in the deuce court at 2017 Wimbledon. Federer lately uses precision serving to change the momentum of the match, while Novak Djokovic often employs a slow serve-and-volley out wide. But nobody has been able to do it consistently.
That is where the underarm serve comes in. While Nadal, with his still-exemplary lateral movement cuts off angled serves, a short, low underarm serve will disrupt the machine. You wouldn’t need to do it often either. Just enough for it to register as a bullet point in Nadal’s gameplan, enough to rein the Spaniard in a little.
But while it remains practical, don’t hold your breath for players regularly dinging the ball over the net. For starters, the shot is deceptively hard to pull off. In fact, on Thursday, Kyrgios overhit the service box by a foot or so.
But its biggest hurdle remains the uptight critics. In volleyball or badminton servers vary the depth and speed to keep opponents on their toes. The variation in speed and depth is also present in cricket and baseball in the form of knuckleballs and slower bouncers. But an underarm serve ruffles as many feathers as underhand bowling did back when it was legal. A more relevant cricket analogy would be a ‘Mankad’ runout. Perfectly logical response to your opponent’s play, seen as breaching the spirit of the game.
When done correctly, an underarm serve would be a Lionel Messi freekick rolled under the wall. You only need to do it twice for Real Madrid’s Marcelo to lay down on the grass, effectively presenting a hole in the wall.
Analyst Craig O’Shannessy and former French Open champion Yannick Noah have batted for players to start using the ploy, with the latter exclaiming: “I would serve underarm every time and hit only drop shots. And if he’s at the net, I’d hit it at him. You have to try something.”
Therein lies the irony. A drop shot, which sees a player set up a forehand only to softly slice the ball instead, draws cheers. An underarm serve, like on Thursday, gets jeers. Perhaps tennis royalty Federer’s should be considered the last word.
“Underarm is definitely a tactic, I believe,” Federer said on Friday. “Especially when guys are hugging the fence in the back. It’s just that you look silly if you miss it.”