PARIS — A young American man tried an underhand serve while cramping during a five-setter at the French Open. Hmm. Seen that before, haven’t we?
Except there was one key difference this time: For 21-year-old Jared Donaldson against No. 4-seed Grigor Dimitrov on Wednesday, unlike for 17-year-old – and eventual tournament champion – Michael Chang against Ivan Lendl in 1989, the unorthodox strategy didn’t come in a victory.
Dimitrov came back to beat the 57th-ranked Donaldson 6-7 (2), 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 10-8 in a second-round match that lasted 4 hours, 19 minutes on the new Court 18 at Roland Garros. The most memorable aspect was Donaldson’s two unusual service motions; he won the point the first time, but not the other.
“I would never try it if I was feeling 100 percent and stuff,” said Donaldson, who could barely move by the end because of painful cramps in his legs. “But obviously Grigor was playing so far back on the return that I felt like, ‘You know, maybe it’s just something that I’ll try.’ He obviously wasn’t expecting it, you know what I mean? It’s kind of a cheeky way to get a point.”
Donaldson said he has never seen footage of what Chang did 29 years ago. He did, however, know of the episode: Chang used an underhand serve while cramping during a fourth-round win over Lendl on the way to the French Open title; he remains the youngest man to win a major singles championship.
Dimitrov was not angered by the tactic.
Quite the opposite, actually, shrugging his shoulders and conceding it was smart for Donaldson to try it.
“It was beautiful, right?” Dimitrov said. “He wanted to use something different to kind of try to put me off guard.”
Before his first underhand attempt, Donaldson was actually two points from the victory, leading 6-5 in the fifth set and at love-30 on Dimitrov’s serve. But Dimitrov took the next four points.
In the next game, at 6-all, 40-30, Donaldson successfully used the underhand motion. He hit a short serve that two-time Grand Slam semifinalist Dimitrov returned long to allow Donaldson to hold.
After Dimitrov broke to lead 8-7 and serve for the victory, Donaldson broke right back.
In the next game, though, Donaldson could barely stand, let alone run. He double-faulted. Then he tried his second underhand serve, dropping the point. Dimitrov hit a winner to break for a 9-8 lead, Donaldson slowly limped to the sideline for the changeover and, soon enough, it was over.
“It wasn’t that I was tired or anything,” Donaldson said. “It was just my leg muscles had reached their limit, basically.”
After the final point, Dimitrov leaned forward while raising each knee to give it a kiss — thanking his own legs for carrying him to the win while Donaldson’s gave way.
“I had quite a little bit left in the tank, so that was great,” said Dimitrov, who equaled his best French Open showing by reaching the third round. “And I think it meant a lot to the whole team, but especially to my fitness guy. … It’s great to win a match in five sets. I think it stays with you. You keep it.”
Story: Howard Fendrich