Underarm serves, Tim Henman's grandmother and the debate dividing tennis

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Andy Murray of Great Britain looks on against James Duckworth of Australia during Men's Singles First Round match during Day One of The Championships Wimbledon 2022 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 27, 2022 in London, England. - GETTY IMAGES
Andy Murray of Great Britain looks on against James Duckworth of Australia during Men's Singles First Round match during Day One of The Championships Wimbledon 2022 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 27, 2022 in London, England. - GETTY IMAGES

Devious and underhand or a stroke of genius? When it comes to underarm serves, tennis is divided.

Andy Murray added an unexpected dose of mischief to his first round match on Monday when he dropped the controversial shot against James Duckworth. It was the first time he had ever used it at the All England Club but it was not strictly a break in tradition. Historically, the last player to regularly play with an underarm serve here came from another British tennis dynasty.

Susan Billington, Tim Henman's late grandmother, routinely served underarm throughout the late 1940s and 50s. She represented the last days of a bygone era where women in tennis were late to graduate to the modern iteration of the shot. In fact, her mother Ellen Mary Stawell Browne was reputedly the first woman to ever serve overarm in 1901.

Now though, the shot has experienced a resurgence in the men's game rather than the women's. Michael Chang gained major attention for using it, when he upset Ivan Lendl to win the French Open title in 1989. But more recently, as players' serves have increased in power and speed and returners opt to receive meters behind the baseline, some are choosing to take advantage.

While world No 38 Alexander Bublik is probably the player on the ATP tour who uses the shot the most, the most infamous is Nick Kyrgios. He provoked a row in Acapulco in 2019 for hitting an underarm serve against Rafael Nadal, who saw the move as distasteful. "If you do it with the goal to improve your game, or like a tactical thing, I support 100 per cent," Nadal clarified the following year. "If you do [it to] disrespect the opponent, [it] is not a good thing."

One-time British No. 1 and Murray's former coach Mark Petchey is an underarm sceptic. "My father always told me that I had to notify the opponent if I was going to hit an underarm serve," he tells Telegraph Sport. "It was considered extremely poor sportsmanship to do it unexpectedly. The only acceptable times you did it was when you were injured or too windy."

But Murray sees it differently. Accusations of showboating or disrespect are missing the point, he said on Monday. "I've never understood that," he said. "It's a legitimate way of serving. No one says it's disrespectful for someone to return from five metres behind the baseline to try to get an advantage. So I used it, not to be disrespectful to him, but to say, 'If you're going to step further back to return the serve to give yourself more time, then I'm going to exploit that'."

While it worked out for Murray, Kyrgios's 'tweener' underarm serve against Paul Jubb on Tuesday did not quite go to plan. So renowned is Kyrgios for deploying the shot, the key element of surprise was lost on British player Jubb, who won the point.

But Kyrgios remains undeterred - even if the tennis hierarchy will not recognise his role in making it trendy again: "[In Acapulco] I'm playing Rafael Nadal for like three hours, I couldn't win a point. I threw in one underarm serve. They [said], 'I don't know if there's a place in the game for that'. Now it's like, 'Andy Murray, [he's] so smart'. I'm just like, what on earth? Everyone does it now. It's like they're a genius."

Regardless of whether it is taken seriously, Kyrgios firmly believes it can be a good point of variety and interest for the game: "I'm glad that people are realising that's a different way to win the point. I think it's just hilarious."

What are your views on the underarm serve? Tell us in the comments section below