Thirty years after Michael Chang hit the most famous underarm serve in history at the French Open, that little bit of strategy — frowned upon by some — is making its way back into tennis, it seems.
Alexander Bublik served that way three times against 2018 runner-up Dominic Thiem in the second round at Roland Garros on Thursday. And Bublik won two of those points.
Earlier this year, Nick Kyrgios drew a lot of attention and managed to annoy Rafael Nadal by employing the tactic during their match at Acapulco, Mexico.
Here’s what Thiem and Nadal have in common: Both stand waaaaaay back to return serves, making them particularly vulnerable to softly struck underarm serves that are effectively drop shots.
Nadal might have been mad, but Thiem appreciated the strategy.
“To be honest, it’s a good choice against players like us who are that far behind the baseline,” Thiem said after beating Bublik in four sets. “There is nothing bad about it. I was prepared for that.”
Bublik, who is known for his wide variety of shots, attempted his first underarm serve while trailing 4-1 in the first set.
After missing a first serve, he noticed that Thiem backed up almost all the way to the wall behind the baseline. Bublik bounced the ball twice, as usual, but then instead of tossing the ball into the air for a standard, overhead serve, he quickly just let it drop from his hand and hit it delicately down the middle.
The ball landed on a line and, with so little force behind it, quickly bounced back toward the clay. Thiem had to rush forward to reply, opening up plenty of space for Bublik to produce a backhand, cross-court passing shot.
It was a similar result to what a cramping 17-year-old Chang achieved in the final set of a fourth-round win over Ivan Lendl in 1989 en route to becoming the youngest male Grand Slam champion in tennis history.
The 91st-ranked Bublik won another point with an underarm serve later in the match against Thiem. But when Bublik tried it a third time, Thiem had caught on and replied with a perfect drop-shot winner.
“At least he didn’t hit … an ace,” Thiem said. “Some players do it well — him, Kyrgios. … Against these guys, you have to be prepared to sometimes … sprint when you return.”
While it wasn’t quite the raucous reception that Chang’s effort received, the spectators inside Court Philippe Chatrier greeted Bublik’s shot selection with mild applause.
Thiem will next face Pablo Cuevas, who once used an underarm serve at a tournament after he had double-faulted 13 times and needed to save a match point.
“It was a second serve, and I didn’t want to do another double-fault,” Cuevas said. “More than thinking about winning the point, I thought, ‘I don’t want to miss the serve,’ and so I did an underarm serve. And I ended up winning the match.”
Might another underarm serve be in order against Thiem in the French Open’s third round?
“Better not announce it,” Cuevas said. “But no, I prefer that the normal serve works better.”