Miami Open 2019: Debate surrounding Nick Kyrgios' underarm serve finds parallels in R Ashwin's 'Mankad' controversy

“Something that is within the laws of a sport, can’t be against the spirit of the game.”

 Miami Open 2019: Debate surrounding Nick Kyrgios underarm serve finds parallels in R Ashwins Mankad controversy

Nick Kyrgios in action at the Miami Open. Reuters

If you’re a part of the sports watching universe you’ve probably heard this line, or some variant of it, over the last couple of days. Ever since Ravichandran Ashwin ‘Mankaded’ Jos Buttler to set the IPL on fire, fanbases of all kinds have been in an absolute tizzy; arguments for and against Ashwin’s behavior, which was legal but allegedly against the ‘spirit of the game’, have been dominating cricket discussions everywhere.

But even before Ashwin’s piece of must-see theatre, the question of legality and sporting spirit was doing the rounds in the tennis world – albeit at a smaller scale. You see, Nick Kyrgios has been up to his usual drill of alternating brilliant tennis with pompous showmanship, and he has touched a fresh nerve lately with an old trick that somehow feels new whenever we see it: the underarm serve.

Kyrgios, of course, is known for his shenanigans on the court. We’ve all come to expect the whole package when he’s in action: the tweeners, the no-look shots, the tussles with the crowd and umpire, the all-or-nothing tennis. But it wasn’t until he attempted an underarm serve against Rafael Nadal last month in Acapulco (a tournament that he ended up winning) that he prompted an extraordinary personal attack from the perennially polite Spaniard, who said Kyrgios ‘lacks respect for his opponent and himself’.

Since that first attempt against Nadal, Kyrgios has seemingly perfected the shot and made it something of a regular feature of his game. During his third round match against Dusan Lajovic in the ongoing Miami Open, Kyrgios hit two underarm serves, with the first going for an ace and the second winning him the point off a Lajovic error.

Kyrgios trying to pull a fast one (or a ‘slow one’, to be completely literal) against his opponents – Nadal in particular – has past precedent. In their very first meeting at Wimbledon 2014, Kyrgios responded to a decent Nadal return by hitting a tweener drop shot. It was a play so audacious that it made the whole world sit up and take notice.

Nadal’s disgusted reaction told us all we needed to know what he thought about the tactic, but everyone else was absolutely enthralled by the new kid on the block unfurling brand new tricks against celebrated opponents. That tweener drew widespread praise from the tennis world, and most of the other cheeky shots that Kyrgios has tried since then have earned similar plaudits.

The underarm serve, however, hasn’t been quite as well-received; in fact, the backlash against it has been severe. Several miles of social media space have been devoted to how unsportsmanlike it is, and how Kyrgios is bringing the game into disrepute by repeatedly disrespecting his opponents. Top 10 player Kevin Anderson even went as far as saying Kyrgios had broken an ‘unwritten rule’ by attempting it.

But what’s the difference between the under-arm serve and, say, a drop shot or a tweener? What is it that makes one so easily accepted and the other such a taboo? The logic behind these unconventional tactics is similar too, so the different responses they elicit is particularly fascinating.

“I was feeling my legs and starting to cramp up so I wanted a free point at any cost, Kyrgios said after the match against Nadal in Acapulco. “He was standing behind the baseline so I thought the underarm serve, try to break his rhythm a little bit…I saw a lot of guys actually using the underarm serve and I think it’s a tactic for sure.”

“I mean isn’t the idea to serve where the person can’t get the ball? Try to get an ace?” Kyrgios added.

Replace ‘underarm serve’ with drop shot in the above quote, and it would make just as much sense. Just like a drop shot, an underarm serve takes advantage of the fact that the opponent is standing too far back for their own good. Nadal frequently adopts a return stance 10 feet behind the baseline, and an underarm serve would logically seem like the best way to catch him off guard and win a free point.

Kyrgios’ explanation for the tactic seems to sit well with none other than Roger Federer too. “Underarm is definitely a tactic, I believe,” Federer had said last month, adding, “especially when guys are hugging the fence in the back. From that standpoint (players) shouldn’t be ashamed to try it out.”

Federer’s comments were echoed yesterday by the mother and former coach of Andy Murray. “The whole point of tennis competition is to disrupt your opponent’s game by applying pressure through changing the speed, spin, direction, depth or height of the ball. And that includes the serve,” Judy Murray said on Twitter.

Moreover, Kyrgios is not the first tennis player to hit an underarm serve. Slam champions like Michael Chang (at the 1989 French Open) and Martina Hingis (at the 1999 French Open) have tried it, and more recently, Jared Donaldson attempted one against Grigor Dimitrov at the 2018 French Open – with varying degrees of success.

So that should be it, right? When luminaries like Federer, Hingis and Chang have no problem with the underarm serve, then maybe there’s nothing wrong with it?

It’s tempting to agree with all of these players who have actually played the game at the highest level; you almost want to banish your distaste for underarming serving forever. But there’s something about the whole thing – call it a ‘stink’, if you will – that makes it difficult to do so.

Underarm serving is very much like hitting a drop shot in its intention, as mentioned above. But it is markedly different in one significant aspect. A well-executed drop shot is nearly unanswerable; even if your opponent is prepared for it, they won’t be able to get to the ball if you drop it short enough. That’s not the case with an underarm serve though. The rules of serving, which dictate that you have to drop the ball in a particular box with the receiver standing diagonally opposite you, mean that the opponent will invariably get to an underarm serve comfortably if they are prepared for it.

In other words, a good returner will whack an underarm serve for a winner 9 times out of 10 – if only they know to be prepared for it.

And that’s where the grey area lies. Most returners around the world are not prepared for an underarm serve, because they trust the server to try and beat them with pace and not with trickery. When you are beaten by a hard-hit winner or a delicate drop shot, you grudgingly accept that your opponent is too good. But when you are beaten by a serve that bounces twice before the baseline, you feel betrayed.

It’s hard not to look at an underarm serve as an amateur or even a schoolboy tactic. As a recreational tennis player myself, I seethe with rage every time I see someone attempting an underarm serve, and vow never to play against that player again. I can only imagine how professional players feel when they are sent back to their school days despite having struggled hard to reach the highest level.

There’s no rule against the underarm serve, which means it is perfectly legal and justifiable from every technical standpoint. But should something be considered unsportsmanlike only if it is illegal? Experts like Harsha Bhogle have raised that question in the aftermath of the Ashwin-Buttler incident, and it is certainly very pertinent in this Kyrgios-inspired discussion too.

The dictionary defines the word ‘sportsmanlike’ as ‘behaving in a way that is fair and shows respect towards the other players when playing sport’. Is underarm serving fair and respectful? In my book, it isn’t – which means it is unsportsmanlike (at least in my eyes). But is it within the rules of the game? Of course it is – which means it is not illegal.

The very existence of the term ‘sportsmanlike’ should tell us that it cannot be the same as ‘legal’. If something is legal, there’s no reason to call it sportsmanlike, because it is what everyone has to do, whether they like it or not. And if something is illegal, we can’t call it unsportsmanlike – because it wouldn’t be allowed in the first place, and so would never transpire (without incurring some penalty).

At the end of the day, the debate over whether an act is sportsmanlike or not comes down to your personal code of ethics. I personally think underarm serving is unfair and unsportsmanlike, but there are many who would consider it totally justified – just like a drop shot, or a slower ball in cricket.

The players themselves have rather eclectic views on what constitutes bad sportsmanship and what doesn’t. Shane Warne thinks what Ashwin did to Buttler was embarrassing and disgraceful, but he never had any problem with sledging his opponents on the field and trying to ‘mentally disintegrate’ them. Federer himself endorses underarming serving now and resorts to comparably questionable tactics like SABR, but there was a time when he wasn’t even on-board with the dropshot, calling it a ‘panic shot’.

The element of subjectivity in labelling something sportsmanlike or otherwise will never go away. The ‘spirit of the game’ is almost never codified by a strict set of laws, because it means different things to different people. And that’s how it will always be.

The line between sportsmanlike behavior and doing everything in your power to win was blurred to start with. It becomes even murkier when you get a queasy feeling about something that you see on the field, even if you can’t rationally explain why you think it is wrong.

Does Kyrgios deserve to be slated for his ‘unsportsmanlike’ underarm serving, even though it is 100% legal? Your answer is as good as mine.

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Updated Date: Mar 26, 2019 22:04:37 IST

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