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Tennis - French Open - Roland Garros, Paris, France - September 28, 2020 Kazakhstan's Alexander Bublik in action during his first round match against France's Gael Monfils REUTERS/Charles Platiau (REUTERS)
Tennis - French Open - Roland Garros, Paris, France - September 28, 2020 Kazakhstan's Alexander Bublik in action during his first round match against France's Gael Monfils REUTERS/Charles Platiau (REUTERS)

The easiest, riskiest, most controversial shot in tennis

In the era of the baseliners, the humble underhand serve is seeing a resurgence

Kazakhstan’s Alexander Bublik, the tennis player who says he hates tennis, was on the French Open’s center court Monday night when he did one of the few things he actually likes about this sport: he hit a shot so dumb it was brilliant.

Instead of walloping a traditional serve at more than 100 miles per hour, he dinked an underarm shot just over the net and into Gael Monfils’ court at about the speed of a paper plane. The move was completely legal. And it was so stunning that it was also an ace.

It wasn’t the first time Bublik had pulled the stunt, known here as a service à la cuillère—a “spoon serve." It wasn’t even the first time he’d pulled it this month. After deploying the underarm shot to destructive effect in a tournament last week, it has become Bublik’s not-so-secret weapon. Now, with people catching on, the spoon serve could turn into Paris’s must-have accessory of the fall.

Less than 24 hours after Bublik, Romania’s Monica Niculescu also tried one in her first-round match, though it was angrily punished by her opponent with a forehand winner. Still, it didn’t take long for the debate over whether or not the serve was sportsmanlike to resurface.

Plenty of purists see the move as an insult to tennis, a sport of power, precision, and immaculate mechanics. When it comes to Bublik, ranked no. 55 in the world, they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. He did, after all, recently say this to the French sports daily L’Equipe: “I despise tennis with all of my heart. I only play it for the money."

And much of tennis despises the underarm serve. Rafael Nadal, the high priest of hitting the ball incredibly hard all of the time, is among those who have called the move downright disrespectful.

The irony is that Nadal is partially to blame for its resurgence.

Modern players serve the ball with such force and topspin that the only way to get a handle on these violent high-bouncing assaults is to keep moving back. As the supreme baseline player of his generation, Nadal made it fashionable to return serve from so far off the court that he might as well be standing in the concession line. Nowhere did he push the boundaries further than here at Roland-Garros, where the backcourts are 5 feet deeper than they are at the U.S. Open or on Wimlbledon’s Centre Court.

What backtracking baseliners never considered was that they were leaving the forecourt wide open. All it would take to exploit it was the first shot learned by every six-year-old with a racket: a short underarm serve.

“People should be using it," said Lindsay Davenport, a three-time Grand Slam tournament winner and analyst for the Tennis Channel. “It’s almost a necessary skill that needs to be taught when you see the return positions people have started taking in this sport."

The genre’s widely held masterpiece came here in 1989. Back then, a 17-year-old Michael Chang was so addled by exhaustion in his match against world No. 1 Ivan Lendl that he could only muster a spoon serve on his way to a momentous comeback. The fans at Roland-Garros weren’t sure what they’d just seen.

In the years that followed, they would decide they didn’t much care for it. In 1999, they were merciless with Martina Hingis when she twice faked out Steffi Graf in the French Open final and showered her with boos. This year, it’s a different story. With practically no snooty Parisians in the stands to hiss and moan, it’s open season on the spoon serve.

Though Nick Kyrgios deserves the credit for bringing it back into fashion with at least half a dozen examples last season, no one executes quite like the man from Kazakhstan. Bublik is so committed that he uncorked one on his very first competitive serve after the six-month pandemic hiatus.

His version of the spoon isn’t the underhand thwack for when you’ve just put five straight serves in the net. These are triumphs of deception. He begins by hunching over his racket, as if he’s about to bounce the ball again. But right when you expect him to straighten up, he whips a forehand slice over the net. Then he tries not to grin.

After Monday’s effort from Bublik, Monfils simply dropped his head and trudged across the court. But Chile’s Cristian Garin took it much worse at a French Open tune-up in Hamburg earlier this month.

“What?" Garin yelled at Bublik. “What are you doing?"

The answer was: winning the point with minimal effort. But that’s not to say the underarm serve is a tool of the unskilled player. In the same match against Monfils, Bublik showed he was capable of producing more conventional tennis magic if he had to. Early in the match against Monfils, he polished off a rally with a physics-defying lob, hit on the run and between the legs.

Roland-Garros called that one—not the spoon serve—the tournament’s shot of the day.

Write to Joshua Robinson at joshua.robinson@wsj.com

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