There are certain characteristics that separate tennis from any other sport. The flashy outfits. The intense mental requirements and strategic execution. The respectful viewing etiquette. The distinctive grunts.
Ahh yes, the grunts. Although ostensibly a minor detail in the scope of professional tennis, this topic has been the cause of heated debate for a long time. In fact, some tournaments have prevented specific athletes from participating due to their grunting habits, while others are considering an official ban for all tennis players. Albeit extreme, these cases nevertheless illustrate the legitimacy and magnitude of the issue.
Players have long attested to the benefits of grunting. They assert that pushing air from their lungs allows them to exert more power in their shots and to focus on the timing of their strokes. In the past, this conjecture was the only available form of persuasion. Today, the debate has changed. Science has now entered the game. Interestingly, a recent study of U.S. college players found that athletes who didn’t normally grunt increased the speed of their forehands and serves when they did grunt.
Complaints against grunting also have some scientific basis. In 2005, one of Maria Sharapova’s grunts registered above 100 decibels, roughly the sound of a chainsaw or jackhammer. Some of the more radical protests against tennis go as far as to say that grunting has disgraced the prestigious reputation of the sport and has forever polluted the quality of tennis. Yet not all protests are this fanatical. Generally, most people complain that grunting is annoying and distracting.
I know at one point in our lives, we have all been in this group of complainers. We’ve all experienced that moment. Whether it’s watching the pros on TV or the particularly intense players in our local community, we’ve all heard particularly characteristic grunts, and we’ve all inevitably asked, “Was that really necessary?”
To me, the question isn’t something that a simple yes-or-no answer can solve. It depends on the situation; it depends on the grunt.
Yes, there are different types of grunts. Although specific grunting styles vary from athlete to athlete, there are ultimately a few major categories of tennis grunts. After years of playing and watching tennis, I’ve come to categorize and title them. Yes, I’m a nerd. I know.
The Exclamation: As if startled, the player releases a short yelp. These yelps take the shapes of words and are usually a variation of “Ooh!” or “Oy!” The Serbian former world number one Jelena Jankovic is the typical example of this category.
The Seductive Moan: The name is pretty self-explanatory.
The Stress Reliever: Like a heavy sigh, this type of grunt is purely a release of air. There are no accompanying musical qualities or sounds. Usually, the grunts are relatively short and brief.
The Charging Bull: More intense than a grunt, this can be viewed more as a scream or shriek. This is usually used on an ace or winning shot, when a player exerts a ton of force. Serena Williams, anyone?
The Two-Parter: Prior to hitting the ball, the player releases a low “pre-grunt” that precedes the real thing. The ultimate result is a two-pronged monster grunt. Past players include Monica Seles and Elena Dementieva, while more recent examples include Novak Djokovic.
After reviewing these forms of grunting, the original question returns. Is grunting really necessary? I say…maybe. It is no doubt that certain athletes and their certain grunts are distracting. Victoria Azarenka’s grunt, reminiscent of a tropical bird’s mating call, would be unbearable in an intense match. Yet I also understand that with the overwhelming pressure that comes at the professional level, grunting can be the only form of relief and expression. Therefore, if players must grunt to execute their 100 mph serve, then so be it. Quality tennis cannot be comprised for quiet tennis. But for those who don’t agree, I would like to make a friendly suggestion: wear earplugs.
Angel Wang is trying to come up with a grunt of her own. Send yours as inspiration to angelwang94 “at” gmail.com. (MP3s accepted.)