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Underarm serve showed that Andy Murray’s tennis brain is still his superpower

Andy Murray celebrates victory against Carlos Alcaraz - GETTY IMAGES

Andy Murray celebrates victory against Carlos Alcaraz – GETTY IMAGES

Andy Murray’s multi-faceted game features all kinds of tricky variations, lobs and dinks, but we had never seen him deploy an underarm serve until he brought the shot out at game point, early in the second set, against Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz at Indian Wells.

Underarm and over there

Murray’s comeback win over Alcaraz on Sunday offered another reminder of his grandmasterly tennis brain. When Murray brought out an underarm serve early in the second set – the first time he had deployed this tactic in his professional career – it left Alcaraz too flat-footed to take a step towards the ball.

Even before the arrival of his metal hip, Murray never possessed a single physical superpower to match Roger Federer’s gliding movement, Rafael Nadal’s mighty forehand or Novak Djokovic’s freakish flexibility. His greatest asset is the high-spec computer in his head – a giant database that can reel off any opponent’s go-to serve at will.

This is the legacy of the way his mother Judy brought him up: not endlessly drilling groundstrokes, but competing in local men’s tournaments from the age of eight. The most famous story from those days involved a doubles match in which a tiny Murray went up to his partner, a distinguished Dunblane architect, to say, “You’re standing a bit close to the net… you might get lobbed if I decide to serve and volley.” Now, more than 25 years later, the same tactical intelligence remains his touchstone.

Reading the conditions

Murray brought out the underarm serve in response to the unusually slow conditions here in Indian Wells. We might as well be playing on clay, so difficult is it to hit through your opponent. (This was a factor, also, in Emma Raducanu’s early loss to Aliaksandra Sasnovich on Friday.)

Murray’s serve has been the strongest part of his game since the summer, earning him numerous free points. But the ball loses so much speed on contact with this gritty court surface that he hit only two conventional aces during Sunday’s three-hour match. As he put it afterwards, “I thought, ‘If he’s going to stand that far back and I’m getting no love from the court and the conditions, why not try it and see if I can bring him forward a little bit?’”

The underarm serve earned Murray a 2-1 lead in the second set and triggered such a dramatic switch of momentum that he then collected 10 of the last 14 games. And yet, it was only part of an overall tactical masterclass.

At just 18, Alcaraz is a one-man wrecking ball, so explosive and powerful that he is seen by many – including Murray himself – as a future world No 1. Murray couldn’t afford to stand and trade with such a heavy puncher, so he mixed up his options instead. The last point of the match was typical, as he rumbled in unexpectedly behind a second serve to place a volley into the open court.

Building on a fine win

“I wouldn’t say we’re best friends,” Murray told reporters when asked about Alexander Zverev, his next opponent at the BNP Paribas Open. Such open disregard is unusual on the tour, now that Roger Federer’s chivalry has replaced John McEnroe’s chippiness as the standard mode of behaviour. It felt refreshing, in the circumstances, to hear Murray be so honest.

But if we look beyond the personal animus, this is a significant match for Murray, who is about to lose the 250 rankings points that he earned by winning Antwerp two years ago. Defeat here would send him dropping around 50 places to somewhere in the region of 170 in the world.

Still, when Murray was asked about this potential pitfall, he replied: “Let’s try to be positive.” His victory over Alcaraz was one of his best in recent seasons. He has only beaten 11 top-50 opponents since his hip blew up in the summer of 2017, and this performance stood comparison with any of them. Afterwards, he stressed that the win had given him great encouragement and hope for the future.

“Playing with a metal hip is not easy and everything that goes into prepping and getting ready for these events is challenging,” said Murray. “But to get to do that makes it worth it and gives me confidence and encouragement to keep going. If I play like that, the ranking will take care of itself.

“It’s probably been going a little bit slower than I would have liked. But I’m starting to get there again, and get to a level where it wouldn’t be a surprise if I won a tournament.”

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