Corentin Moutet: How the underarm serve rules the French Open


Sebastian Ofner’s eyes bulged with surprise, but he had no time for emotion. He had to move forward.

He also shouldn’t have been surprised. This was the eighth time that Corentin Moutet had hit him with an underarm serve, delighting the baying French crowd on Court Suzanne-Lenglen throughout his 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-1 victory 0n Friday night. It made him the only French man in the last-16 at Roland Garros, the first male representative from his country to reach that stage since 2020.

As the Austrian scrambled forward like a cartoon character, feet scraping on the terre battue, he desperately attempted to flick his racket underneath the ball – to no avail. Another underarm serve. Another point lost.

Moutet won 53 of the 79 points he played on serve, and nine of the 12 that he started with tennis’ most controversial trickshot, which is caught between being an entirely legal tactical masterstroke that can unnerve an opponent, and being perceived as a sign of direspect, or insolence, or just not the way things should be done.

Moutet never does things the way they should be done, and nor do the fans at Roland Garros, neither generally nor throughout his French Open run. In wins over Chile’s Nicolas Jarry, Ukraine’s Alexander Shevchenko, and now Ofner, the Austrian, chants of “Moutet, Moutet, Moutet” have echoed around the stadia, with a fervour that Les Bleus will want to replicate when Euro 2024 starts on Friday June 14. He has not just matched their energy, but fed off it, roaring through the latter stages of matches — and dips in form, when adversity strikes, and the brain goes to mush — with their help. When arenas become amphitheatres and the court becomes a stage, Moutet revels in performing, the underarm serve the ultimate expression of favoring aesthetics and spectacle over any concession to efficiency.


Moutet backed up the tactic with his all-round game (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)

Or so it appears. Going for the spectacular doesn’t mean he isn’t thinking. Alongside fellow Frenchman Hugo Gaston, with which he shares a few attributes — on the shorter side; left-handed; prone to slicing; more prone to dropshots; a less-than-booming regulation serve — he has figured out that on the clay in Paris, especially in cold temperatures with heavy balls and low bounces, the underarm serve isn’t just a joker in the pack: it’s a whole strategy. Where Nick Kyrgios can back up his use of the shot with one of the best serves in the men’s tour, Gaston and Moutet don’t exactly expect to win a ton of free points behind their first serve, so throwing in a change-up makes a bit more sense.

It works. Here’s how he used it on Friday night.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

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There isn’t much jeopardy on the first: at 40-0 up after breaking Ofner’s serve, Moutet has the freedom to do what he likes.

The Austrian is standing incredibly deep, as many returners on the men’s tour too, in order to give themselves time — but here, he gives himself too long to get up to the ball. It’s an ace, and Moutet is 1 for 1.

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According to data from Tennis Abstract, whether or not players use the underarm serve on “easy” or “difficult” points is mixed. But very few use it early in a match. By the third game, Moutet has already hit two, one from each side of the court.

This introduces the duality of the underarm serve. First, it often wins a point. Second, it plants doubt in the opponent’s mind. Moutet is making Ofner doubt himself after mere moments in a match that could go five sets. That’s some additional mental stress that he simply doesn’t need — and he also doesn’t need to be chasing down short ball after short ball, having come through a five-setter the previous day. Two for two, Moutet.

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After a relative drought of four games, Moutet’s blood is up. He jogs away from his physio before they’re done sorting out a cut on his knee, holds the ball aloft to tell Ofner he’s ready, and flicks in another. It’s not quite as precise as the previous two, arcing too high, and Ofner is on to it — but pushes it long. Three for three.

This is another benefit of the underarm serve. Even if players do get to the ball, they are often so surprised that by the time they do, executing on a shot isn’t front of mind.

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Moutet lost that game, and the set. but he didn’t stop hitting the underarmer. As on the first two, he gets the sidespin just right, forcing Ofner to contort his racket into a position so unstable that he falls over. Four for four — and on a break point, with a remarkable display of gutsiness or foolhardiness. The underarm serve: supporting outcome-biased analysis in the Open Era since Michael Chang and Ivan Lendl in 1989.

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A bit less pressure at 30-30, but still a pretty tight place to go for the shot — and Moutet’s first loss of a point behind it. This is all about Ofner’s movement, as much as the ball isn’t quite wide enough in the box. He gets a huge stride off into the court, which enables him to set his feet and move through the forehand with more control than the previous example that he missed long, sweeping it into the open court.

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Moutet was far from deterred, using it again on a break point, this time though, into the deuce-court. It’s a bit too deep and the direction doesn’t stretch Ofner out of the running line he’s already set with his return position. That turns the serve into an easy ball for Ofner to turn into an approach shot, but he doesn’t have to follow it in — because he’s already at the net. This puts huge pressure on Moutet’s next shot, which he nets to concede the break.

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Back on his favored ad-side, he has a little more success. This is practically a drop shot, so wide that Ofner can do little but scrape it back across and leave himself far too much real estate to cover. It was perhaps a strange choice from the Austrian, given he felt he had enough racket control to use feel — there was an opportunity to drop shout Moutet right back down the line, as, he was committed to the cross-court chase. Seven down, five to go, and Moutet is 5-2 up on points won.

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Sebastian, oh, mate. This one was so fast it caught the camera and the scoreboard unawares.

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Another game-opener, which perhaps Ofner is wise to by now as he’s starting a little further up the court. Where before, momentum was his friend, here, it is his enemy.

He has put in so much drive in getting up to the ball and hitting his shot that there is only one place for him to go, not out of court coverage, but momentum. Moutet realises this and simply sends the ball back where it came from, Ofner gliding helplessly past it.

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Moutet goes again on game point, and again Ofner picks it. As in the first frame, he’s off and running pretty much as the Frenchman strikes the ball, and fires a heavy forehand into Moutet’s feet. He does well to dig it out, but Ofner knows where he has to go, and dinks it back short, forcing his opponent to scamper and slide in the way he’s done all night. This is, however, the last underarm serve point that the Austrian will win.

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Now we’re in pure vibes territory. Moutet has moved 2-1 ahead in sets, the crowd are up, he’s absolutely loving it. So no surprise that he brings out two underarm serves in a row, and wins both points. One, a much better version of the deuce serve, spitting away from Ofner and levering him off balance, and to finish, the signature one of the match into the Austrian’s forehand. Ofner meekly dumps it in the net. With that, Moutet still four games from victory, the match was done.

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Moutet plays world No 2 Jannik Sinner next, which will likely be a night session on Philippe-Chatrier. The crowds will be out, the chants will resound — and the Italian will be watching Moutet’s hands very closely indeed.

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C’est fini. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)

(Top photo: Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP via Getty Images)



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