If you love tennis, you’ve undoubtedly participated in at least one heated debate about “grunting” (or, in some cases more appropriately, “shrieking”). Should it be completely discouraged or accepted in moderation? Should grunting in pro tennis be penalized when it’s “excessive” or “disruptive”? If so, how do you fairly judge what’s excessive–by measuring decibel level and length? With a “Grunt-o-Meter” or the human ear? Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, of course, headline the debates – but they’re hardly the only players under scrutiny. In fact, more and more analysts are asking, “Are the Male Grunters Just as Bad as the Females?” and arguing that you can’t blame women for having higher-pitched voices when men are equally loud.
It seems that most people have very strong and fixed opinions on the issue, usually falling hard on one of two sides:
Anti-grunters (including Martina Navratilova), who usually say something along the lines of: “Grunting is cheating because it masks the sound of the ball hitting the racquet”… Or, “Roger Federer and Steffi Graf didn’t need to grunt so why should anyone else?”
Pro-grunters (or “grunter agnostics”), who usually argue something like: “The modern game of tennis has evolved well beyond its origins of a genteel lawn sport into a “ferocious competition among highly conditioned athletes,” so it’s natural for tennis players like any other athletes to grunt”… Or, “Get over it, it’s entertaining.”
Until recently, I never held any terribly strong opinions– other thank agreeing with most folks that Sharapova and Azarenka’s noises were ridiculously over-the-top.
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But then something happened a few weeks ago that made me realize it was time to take a stand.
I was training at Total Tennis and doing a cross-court drill with my pro Andre Santos designed to keep the ball in play as long as possible. I quickly found myself “in the zone”– totally focused and really feeling the ball. We had several rallies that were 20-30 balls each and I left the court feeling great. That night at dinner with the guys in my group, one of the guys said:
“You know, I noticed something today but didn’t want to say anything to screw up your concentration. You were on fire in that drill with Andre today — it was the best you were hitting all day… and when you were hitting I noticed that were kind of making this low-pitched humming sound exhaling on all your shots.”
Oh no, I thought. I had officially joined the ranks of the grunters. I was embarrassed. But he continued:
“You really ought to keep doing that, because it seems like when you do it really helps you hit very well.”
“Was I really that loud?”, I asked sheepishly.
“No,” he said, “it was pretty subtle… And seriously, you should keep doing it. For whatever reason, it works.”
I went home and mentioned this to my personal trainer Jay Gallegos, curious to hear his thoughts. He said something like: “Are you kidding? You ever watch Bruce Lee? Hello?! How are you going to do all that crazy stuff with your body and not make any noise? It’s about breathing… it’s natural. It’s what you need to do.”
Exhibit A: Bruce Lee (who makes Sharapova’s grunts sound tame by comparison)
OK, so tennis is not Kung Fu…
But indisputably, tennis played at a high level does require the body to perform pretty extraordinary feats and powerful ballistic movements similar to other sports in which athletes commonly make noise. A reader (Breck Henderson) made this very observation when commenting on a great tongue-in-cheek piece by Wall Street Journal sports writer Jason Jay, “Confessions of a Tennis Grunter“:
“Grunting is mostly misunderstood. Physiologically, exhaling as you execute any powerful maneuver is necessary for maximum effort. Weight lifters are taught to do it. Football lineman grunt with effort as they collide. Lift anything heavy around the house and you will probably grunt. Grunting helps tennis players focus and exhale as they exert maximum effort on every shot. Even players who don’t grunt loudly are exhaling as they execute their strokes. Some coaches teach youngsters to grunt as a focusing mechanism. It’s hard to imagine how much focus is necessary to play good tennis. So get over it fans, grunting helps players play their best, and that’s what we want to see.”
As with drinking red wine, I’ve come to think that grunting is a good thing– in moderation. “Moderate grunting” helps me enormously with my rhythm and timing, with relaxation through my swing, and, yes, with my focus and confidence. Ever since being called on it, I’ve been paying more attention to the sounds I actually make. Sometimes I do a breathy exhalation with barely any sound. On my slice backhand I find I often do an “Aaahhh” to match the timing of my slower swing, whereas with topspin groundstrokes and serve I often make a sound that seems to be a hybrid (albeit quieter) of the noises that Djokovic and Ferrer make (video examples below)– a kind of “ehyyyyy” or occasional “ha-ehyyyy.”
Perhaps I’ve subliminally assimilated some of these sounds because I admire The Djoker and Ferrer so much and have spent so many hours watching tape of them hitting perfect shots. And I suspect that these particular noises also help my brain recall images of these players at their best… which, in turn, seems to remind my brain of the right technique and instill confidence. It may be similar to the phenomenon many of us amateur have experienced when we miraculously (albeit temporarily) find ourselves playing much better in the days immediately after we’ve watched world-class players live at tournaments: we somehow play looser, swing through more freely, use better posture, play with more confidence–perhaps because our subconscious is willing our bodies to imitate without thinking (something kids do naturally that helps them excel at new thingsfaster than most adults).
Whatever the reason, as my Total Tennis friend said: “it works.” And I’m sticking to it.
That said, I totally agree with those who believe that coaches should discourage today’s juniors (i.e. tomorrow’s greats) or adult hackers like me from making sounds as egregiously loud and long as the likes of Sharapova, Azarenka, and Michelle Larcher De Brito (see below). And personally, I will always monitor myself to make sure I keep my grunting quiet enough that it’s not disruptive or annoying to my opponent or anyone nearby…
CONTEMPORARY TENNIS GRUNTERS WALL OF FAME (AND SHAME)
Below–for your amusement or disgruntlement–are some of the best examples I could find of modern-day tennis grunters. Skip to the very bottom for my favorite video of all.
Part I – Ladies First
(1) MARIA SHARAPOVA and VENUS WILLIAMS – Both of these ladies emit blood-curdling, primal screams straight out of horror films– with Sharapova’s definitely loudest. At an 2012 Australian Open press conference (after losing), the rising star Agnieszka Radwanksa was asked about Sharapova’s grunting. “What can I say.. For sure, it’s pretty annoying.” Sharapova had a witty retort: “Isn’t she back in Poland already?” (Note: After seeing Serena play 2 matches up close at Wimbledon this year, including one doubles match with Venus, I can say definitively that Serena is quieter than she used to be and Venus just as loud).
(2) VICTORIA AZARENKA – Totally unique, owl-like, very high-pitched “singing” exhalation (Hoooooo! or Aaaaoooohh!) especially notable for its duration (often lasts until after her opponent has hit her return). Yes, it’s crazy and not the kind of habitual grunt I’d ever allow a player to get away with if I were a coach… But in truth I found it kind of endearing when I saw here live this year at Wimbledon– perhaps because she showed such a very warm, upbeat approach with her mixed doubles partner and was so gracious in losing to Leander Paes and Elena Vesnina.
(3) FRANCESCA SCHIAVONE – Ferocious “(W)Ahh-HEEE!” (with the “WAH” and HEEE” often hilariously separated after her serves (WAH! (wait for it…) HEEE!). Occasionally she just does an “AH-HAA!” or just “HEY!”. Again, I wouldn’t encourage it in a junior if I were a coach, but it’s part of what makes her so fierce and exciting to watch. (Note: Her fellow Italian player Sara Errani seems to have modeled her own very similar grunt after Schiavone’s– which you may have noticed if you watched her at the French this year). Skip right to 1:40 for the best sampling of classic Schiavone.
(4) MICHELLE LARCHER DE BRITO (Portugal) – The height of absurdity – a perfect hybrid of Sharapova + Venus + Azarkena (Waaaaahhhhhhheeeeee!!!!). And if you listen carefully, you can hear the distinctive grunts of an opponent described above…
Part II – The Guys
(1) RAFAEL NADAL – A shorter crisp “Ehhlhh” that he even makes in practice
(2) DAVID FERRER – “Ayyyyyyyyy“… “Ehhhhhhhhhh“… “AYehhhhhhhh” – often grunted after impact, which many players seem to do (I’ve done it myself) perhaps to release tension and relax the body before the next shot. The video below includes a crescendo of classic Ferrer grunts punctuated by a great point-ending “victory grunt.” Skip right to 0:20 to hear the Ferrer grunt.
(3) NOVAK DJOKOVIC and ANDY MURRAY – Skip to 2:18:30 of the video below for a good example – it often takes both players a while into the match to get vocal. Compare Djokovic’s WaaaAH-UHH (esp loud during serving grunt) to Murray’s higher-pitched, Ferrer-like “Ayyyy.”
(4) MARCEL GRANOLLERS – Resembles a bit the sound Angelique Kerber makes, which Business Insider observed sounds like “she’s getting ready to throw up.”
AND THE BEST FOR LAST…Astute commentary with demonstrations by a young tennis-playing fan, whose imitation of Francesca Schiavone is priceless.
* Photo credit: I took this of Djokovic at US Open 2011 in Armstrong Stadium match against Dolgopolov.
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