"As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them." - John F Kennedy
When I was a child, we only had one tv channel. And every June/July, all my favourite kiddie shows would get shoved aside for the annual tennis spectacle of the French Open and Wimbledon. Regular programming (including the news) would take a backseat as Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Steffi Graf, and Martina Navratilova duked it out for the honours. It incited a lifelong love affair of watching these gladiators go toe-to-toe. There were heroes, there were villains. And the game has taught me, more than any other sport, to value context.
This blog is dedicated to the underarm serve.
In 2022, British star Andy Murray hit an underarm serve in the first-round win at Wimbledon against James Duckworth. Murray justified this unusual move (which paid off) by pointing out Duckworth’s strategy. His opponent had moved way behind the baseline to counter Murray’s massive serves. The short underarm caught Duckworth off guard, and he could no longer deploy this tactic of standing too far back. Murray was applauded by a bemused crowd and went on to win the game. The online and social media aftermath made a bit of a fuss about it.
It's not a new thing, the underarm serve. Many feel it’s disrespectful, unsporting, and not in the spirit of the game. It’s not illegal, though, and I’ve always found it an interesting thing to happen…in context. I clearly remember two very different other occasions (both in the French Open, actually, not Wimbledon) where this tactic was deployed.
The first time I saw it, was Michael Chang against Ivan Lendl, in the 4th round of the French Open 1989. Michael Chang, the American wunderkind, was cramping badly against world number one Lendl, and hit the underarm serve at a critical time in the fifth set, mostly because he couldn’t execute a normal serve in that moment.
The crowd went wild at this unprecedented move, Chang won the point, the match, and eventually the whole tournament.
So it’s actually quite a cheeky, but ultimately crowd-pleasing move, right? Wrong.
Chang was the clear underdog, Lendl the established champion. In stature and reputation, they were polar opposites, and the French crowd had come to admire the diminutive American’s plucky defiance. They were primed to support his audacious move, and they cheered him on for the rest of the tournament to an unlikely rookie victory. It was a fairy tale ending for a determined newcomer, and they lapped it up.
Let’s juxtapose this with the French Open Final, 1999.
A full decade after Chang’s triumph, another teenager strolled onto the centre court. Still only just 18 years old, the Swiss Miss Martina Hingis was chasing her first French Open and fifth grand slam title. She was on fire, the world number one for over two years, and seemingly unstoppable. Never before had a youngster been so successful so quickly and easily.
On the other side of the net was German Steffi Graf. The aging (yes, in tennis 30 is aging) former world no 1, the greatest player of her generation, and someone who had not won a Grand Slam in 3 years. Her time in the sun was seemingly over, and her appearance in the final was unexpected. The baton had passed to a dismissive Hingis, who said pre-tournament: “Steffi had some results in the past, but it's a faster, more athletic game now...She is old now. Her time has passed."
As a result, the crowd was favouring Graf as the clear underdog, and willing her to an unlikely swansong of victory. They cheered Steffi’s every point, politely clapped for Hingis. However, both players followed the script, Hingis playing great tennis and overpowering her opponent in the first set. Then the second set happened, and Hingis challenged an official call. Not only challenged the ball being out but stepped past the net to make her point, a breach in etiquette and protocol that was unprecedented. The crowd murmured in displeasure…and then turned on the Swiss champion.
In an environment of enmity that I haven’t seen before or since, the crowd jeered, booed, and harassed poor Hingis, whose play started to visibly deteriorate. Further displays of petulance and irritation made things worse, and the second set finally went to Graf, after Hingis was psyched out of multiple match points by an openly hostile audience that kept on chanting “Steffi! Steffi!”.
In the third set, now clearly out of sorts, Hingis tried to flip the script. In desperation, she
played an underarm serve, but it backfired. Graf won the point, the crowd booed at the “unsporting” shot at the top of their lungs, and it was the end of Hingis. She went down meekly at 6-2, and the experience broke her. She would never win a Grand Slam singles title again.
Context matters. Life isn’t fair. My supportive crowd is your jeering enemy, and we did the exact same thing, but in different circumstances.
In leadership, you need to be consistent, and you need to know that actions set precedents. However, I think part of the trick is to also read the room, and break protocol once in a while. Taking a risk in desperation when you’re out of other options…well, more often than not, that just puts the nail in your coffin. But it’s a lot easier when you have the wind in your sails and the audience in your corner. That’s the moment when courage is useful, and a big swing can bring big rewards.