The TV director could be forgiven for initially missing the underarm serve ace Andy Murray pulled off in his three-sets victory over Carlos Alcaraz at Indian Wells. There is, after all, no record of the former world number one having attempted this shot before executing it to perfection in the Californian desert.
It wasn’t until the replay was shown that the true brilliance of Murray’s underarm serve became truly apparent. He didn’t just throw one in for the sake of mischief. Faced with a sprightly teenage opponent on a deathly slow surface, Murray recognised the need to try something different. The slice he cut across the ball gave Alcaraz no chance of making a return.
“The courts are painfully slow here,” Murray explained afterwards. “I served just three aces in a three hour match. Since Wimbledon I have been serving four or five a set. That [underarm serve] was one of the three I served today. I was thinking about using it again in the third set. He changed his return position towards the end of the first (set) and started going further back.
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“I've done it the odd time for fun [in practice], but not like that. I just thought I’d hit it short and flat and he wasn't ready for it. It worked. Some people don’t like it but with where guys are returning from nowadays, you have to use it sometimes to try and bring them up the court. You look at a guy like [Daniil] Medvedev standing 12-14 feet behind the baseline and it's pointless hitting 140mph serves when they are coming back, so it's kind of worthwhile throwing it in sometimes.”
For all the rational reasoning behind the underarm serve Murray produced for the first time in his career, there is still a degree of playfulness to the shot. It is the tennis equivalent of a nutmeg in football. While it can certainly serve a purpose, as it did for Murray against Alcaraz, it is a trick shot in its very nature.
That Murray was willing and able to pull it off hints at a change in the Scot’s approach. While the 34-year-old has demonstrated a good physical level over the summer, his body - now complete with metal hip - is no longer the difference-maker it once was. He can’t outlast so many opponents, certainly not at the elite level.
This has forced Murray to use other parts of his skill set to gain an advantage. The amount of doubles the three-times Grand Slam winner has played over the last three years has sharpened his touch at the net while his first serve hasn’t been so heavy in a long time. Serve and volley is now a good option for Murray. He has also made shrewd use of his drop shot.
Many have, with justification, argued Murray’s best chance of success is for him to be more aggressive, to step in from the baseline more frequently. It is certainly true that the 34-year-old could do with shortening more points, but he has used variety rather than his court position to achieve this.
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Murray might not make another Grand Slam final or win another Masters 1000 title, but this final phase of his career might be the most fun. This isn’t to say Murray is set to become a Scottish Gael Monfils - there was still an element of vintage Murray to the way he dug deep against Alcaraz - but he is utilising parts of his game that have previously gone under-appreciated. He has never been more entertaining to watch.
Sportswear brand Under Armour once produced a t-shirt for Murray to wear in practice that read ‘Rise and Grind,’ summing up the Scot’s approach when he was one of the best in the world. Murray can still grind better than most, but this slogan doesn’t describe his game right now. Now, a t-shirt reading ‘License to Thrill’ might be more apt.
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