Illustration by John Gara
Grand Slam tournaments always prompt a discussion of the sometimes-disconcerting noises women tennis players make on the court. “Expect Grunts, Shrieks, Hoots at US Open,” the Associated Press warned five days before the start of the ongoing American major. On Sunday, Business Insider identified “The 10 Loudest Grunters And Shriekers Playing At The US Open.”
The Women’s Tennis Association wants to put a stop to those sorts of headlines; before Wimbledon, the governing body announced a three-step plan to phase out grunting for “future generations.” First, WTA will decide on a decibel level at which grunting is officially too loud; then, a handheld device will be developed to monitor for violations; finally, tennis academies will train their up-and-comers to grunt at appropriate volume.
Despite the formality and fanfare with which the WTA approved and introduced the plan, there’s no timetable for the new rules, and officials have promised that current players won’t be affected or asked to change their habits. This tentativeness speaks to the lack of certainty that still surrounds the issue of grunting: is it a physiological reflex that helps players channel their energy into a powerful stroke? Is it strategic — meant to distract opponents and mask the sound of the racket hitting the ball, which can often indicate where and how it will land? If you don’t know why something happens, how do you eradicate it? Will grunting penalties or the mental task of avoiding them throw off the performances of top players? And does women’s grunting really pose more of a problem than men’s?
As the WTA inches toward a ban, no similar movement is in the works at the Association of Tennis Professionals (or ATP, the governing body of men’s tennis), despite the men grunting a lot, too.
“Men grunt just as much, but you don’t see stories in the media or fans complaining about it,” says Angus Mugford, head of mental conditioning at the legendary IMG Academy, which trains top tennis players. “I think it’s the pitch that makes a difference. There are gender stereotypes and women are supposed to appear more ladylike, and so it’s more of a story when they grunt.”
“Ladylike” is a word often repeated in the noise debate. A man grunting is releasing raw, athletic energy. A woman grunting is annoying, obnoxious, or unladylike — or so the thinking goes. Some say women grunt more than men — the truth, more likely, is that they grunt louder.
“[A man’s grunt] is a lower grunt. Everyone seems to be OK with that. It’s the pitch of the grunt that bothers (fans),” Billie Jean King told the AP.
Yet no solid proof of this exists. There’s very little research on why or how players grunt, let alone how the grunts of women and men differ. (WTA would not comment on how it came to its decision.)
Alison McConnell, a professor of applied physiology at the U.K.’s Brunel University’s Centre for Sports Medicine and Human Performance, believes grunting is a physiological necessity. Her book Breathe Strong, Perform Better argues that when players want to hit a ball with as much force as possible, they have to take a deep breath to help stiffen up, but that exhaling slowly will cause them to lose muscle stiffness before they want to. Using the voice box to stop and then suddenly release air, she says, is the best way to produce a strong stroke.
Dr. Philip Muskin, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University (and a tennis enthusiast), believes that grunting could also improve one’s psychological focus. He likens the tennis grunt to karate’s “kiai” (or, more colloquially, “hi-yah!”) noise. “Part of the training in karate is, at the moment of impact, you let out a cry. You’re focusing all your energy into that strike, and it starts at your toes. Well, tennis starts at your toes, too.”
Another theory is that grunting is a distraction technique adopted to annoy the opponent, or mask the noise of the ball hitting the racket, which can disorient an opponent. New, early research — seemingly the only research done on tennis grunting — suggests that grunting is, in fact, an effective form of distraction.
“Our preliminary findings are that, yes, it does distract your opponent and give you an advantage. It’s a distraction in the same sense as a cell phone that goes off when you’re in the middle of taking an exam,” says Scott Sinnett, a psychology professor at the University of Hawaii, who’s co-authoring the study with Alan Kingstone of the University of British Columbia.
Sinnett and Kingstone’s study didn’t directly examine professional tennis players, but rather 33 people watching videos of players. They asked their subjects to track the ball as it moved left to right, and tested whether grunting made the subjects lose focus on the ball. While the study’s early results have been interpreted as evidence that players use grunting to distract to their advantage, Sinnett says he doesn’t believe the distraction is intentional.
Sinnett’s subjects may indicate that the reason some fans find grunting so annoying is that it distracts them from watching the ball move across the net. Which brings up another unsettled point in the grunting debate: while hundreds of people have complained about grunting in blog posts and tweets — and both Dr. Muskin and Sinnett speculated that WTA’s ban has something to do with complaints from fans — the WTA hasn’t conducted (or at least doesn’t cite) any study of fan opinion on the issue. Meanwhile, the BBC’s Wimbledon Grunt Controller audio mixer was used by many fans to turn up on-court noises, including grunts.
Rupert Brun, head of technology for BBC Audio and Music, analyzed the results of a survey given to those who downloaded the player (which he designed). “Of those who completed it, about half adjusted the player to provide a bit less grunting and about half went for a bit more, suggesting that the balance we normally broadest is probably the best compromise,” he says. “Of course those who turned up the grunting may not have wanted the grunts to be louder, they may just have wanted to experience the sound they would have heard if they had been sitting in the umpire’s chair, including the crowd and the ball going back and forth.”
But if this decision is driven by fan expectations, that doesn’t explain why the organization will continue to allow grunting from its most prominent and frequently-televised players, from Sharapova (101 decibels) to Serena (88.9 decibels) and Venus (85 decibels) Williams.
Shortly after WTA’s announcement, Maria Sharapova told Agence France-Presse that she supported the new policies being implemented on a junior-player level. But could she give up grunting herself?
“Certainly not now, not since I’ve been doing it since I was four years old. It’s definitely tough and impossible to do when you’ve played this sport for over 20 years,” Sharapova said.
According to Allaster, the organization believes immediate changes would throw off the game of its stars. “What is clear from experts is that it would have a clear, damaging effect on performance of the existing generation,” Allaster said. These experts, according to USA Today, include original grunter Monica Seles, Billie Jean King and the Williams sisters, as well as sports psychologist Rick Jensen and coach Nick Bollettieri.
Grunting: it’s an act detrimental to the game, but one that may provide physical, psychological and strategic advantages to its players. It’s irritating to some fans and appealing to others. It can be eradicated at developmental academies but is essential to the game’s current stars. Men and women both do it, but only women need to stop. Is it any surprise that amidst all these contradictions, the problem is being left at the feet of a vaguely-defined group of future players?
Angus Mugford is one of the people who’d be responsible for helping players adapt to concrete anti-grunting rules, should they ever be set.
“Can it be done? I think so,” he says. “But I wouldn’t like to be the person trying to draw the line between what’s acceptable and what’s not.”