The serve remains the biggest offensive weapon in the game of tennis. If a player can’t find a way to solve a dangerous server, they’ll struggle to find any traction in a match. So that returner has to find a counter of some kind.
When a player is blasting high-bouncing serves well into the 140-mph range, as Nick Kyrgios was Sunday night in his third-round Miami Open match, there’s a common counter that works well enough on slow court surfaces. An opponent can move their return position back, sinking so deep into the court that the ball—which slows after impact with the ground, and with every additional second of air resistance—can be hit at a milder speed and more comfortable height. That might be preferable to standing further up, reflexively guessing one way or the other, and trying to slap the ball on the rise. Players like Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem are notorious for disappearing almost entirely from telecasts because of their ridiculous return positions. That’s the tack that Dusan Lajovic, Kyrgios’s opponent, chose last night.
Stay with me, here, but there’s an obvious counter to that counter, too. When the opponent is that deep ... just play the serve shallow. Kyrgios dinked one underarm ace while up 3-1 in the first set:
The underarm serve can be used to toy with the returner’s expectations; it can also be used because of upper-body injury or plain-old leg cramps. (Just ask Michael Chang about that last one.) In Kyrgios’s case, of course, he mostly uses it to amuse himself while playing a match he openly loathes, but the tactic also uniquely suits his game, which is defined by huge serves and soft racket touch.
While Lajovic couldn’t have been thrilled, he didn’t offer much of a reaction to the underhanded trick. It did piss off some goon in the front row, who riled up Kyrgios—admittedly an aphid-high bar to clear—fired up a back-and-forth, and got himself booted from the match by security. (The antagonism spurred Kyrgios to play much better, which his camp should seriously consider as a coaching strategy. Just plant a secret heel in each city. That’s money better spent than on a coach.)
The Australian used a similar serve to close out the first set, and while the execution was worse the second time around, he still got away with it because Lajovic blew the drop shot. Kyrgios ran away with the second set to win , 6-3, 6-1.
Kyrgios infamously tried this out on Nadal during his Acapulco title run last month, and it now looks like part of his regular repertoire. But there’s no reason this tactic should be confined to the clowns of the tour. It’s always advantageous to shake a returner out of their comfort zone—especially one unshakeable as Rafa. All a player needs is the threat of the underarm to keep the opponent’s return position honest and make their actual serves that much more effective. Plenty of big servers could profit if they shrugged off concerns about shame, and that’s how norms change, anyway. Tennis is not exactly suffering from an excess of variety.