The Rally: The Politics of Grunting

Thursday, April 24, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Today a special guest joins me for the Rally. I'll discuss grunting, and the uproar over all those roars, with Jewell, a tennis fan and occasional contributor to Tennis.com from England.

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Jewell,

To me, there are the politics of shrieking, and then there's my involuntary reaction to it, which are two different things. Let met start with an honest admission of the latter, which goes roughly like this:

When I tune into one of Victoria Azarenka's matches and hear her first "wooooooo" I think: Does she really have to make that noise? When I tune into one of Maria Sharapova's matches and hear her first throat-curdling roar, I laugh with the shock of it—it's never not a surprise at first. When I tune into one of Sara Errani's matches and hear her first holler of effort, I think about how much more I might enjoy her subtle game if—like, say, Agnieszka Radwanska—she didn't make such an unsubtle noise while she did it. On the rare occasions when I tune into a Marcel Granollers or Carlos Berlocq match and they're at full shout, I tune out as fast as I can.

Yet in the case of the women, by the middle of the first set I typically don't notice the noise anymore, or at least it doesn't bother me. If one player is shrieking and the other isn't, I will usually be sympathetic to the player who isn't; but I've never left, say, a Sharapova or Errani match because of the noise factor. I wonder if my overall reaction—initial dislike, gradual acceptance—is typical of most tennis fans. If so, is it enough to warrant a crackdown on grunting? As of last year, I would have answered yes, because I thought the recoil people felt was enough to drive them away from a match on TV. Now I'm not so sure if that's a good enough reason to try to quiet things down.

We'll get into the politics of this issue, whether women are unfairly singled out for it, and whether there's any reason to stop it. But let me ask you first what your reaction to a good old fashioned tennis howl is. Does it bother you? Do you not notice it? Do you actively like certain sounds that the players make?

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Steve,

I can't entirely separate my reactions to grunting from the politics of it that way. I watched tennis as a child, missed a few years, and came back to find a game where the women players strode tall and took no nonsense from anyone. When they grunted while hitting a shot, it felt like part of the power game both on and off the court, and I loved it. It doesn't make me want to turn off: It compels me to watch. More generally, it feels like effort and desire to win. Not that quiet players aren't putting in effort or aren't keen enough to win—it's just that, across both tours, I'm often more attracted to players who seem to show those things more.  

It'd be good to see some numbers in the debate over whether fans turn off matches on TV due to grunting. Has anyone ever even attempted an objective survey? I've certainly never seen one.  

It's also worth noting that on-court microphones can be adjusted to lessen the aural impact of grunting. In 2011, the BBC launched a "grunt controller" for radio coverage that allowed listeners to turn down the volume of on-court noises, including grunting. Of those who used the audio mixer, about half turned the sounds down, while the other half turned them up.  

So I'm not really convinced that unquantified, subjective fan reactions to grunting on TV are a good reason to crack down on it, or even if there's a good reason at all. I see a lot of people claiming that every noise except those deemed to be an involuntary effort grunt is gamesmanship or cheating, and should be stopped for that reason. I don't think I agree. What do you think?

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Jewell,

Like you, I've never seen a scientific poll of whether extreme grunting makes a significant number of people turn tennis off, or keeps them from getting into the sport in the first place. Anecdotally, I'd say many older fans have a strong distaste for it, while many younger ones find it comical—Australians mimic Azarenka, Brits titter at Sharapova. But by itself, has grunting hurt the popularity of women's tennis? It's hard to make that case when Serena Williams, who has been known to emit a sound or two during a match, generates the highest ratings on U.S. TV of any player, man or woman.

As far as whether it should be barred, that depends on whether grunting can be considered a hindrance. Tennis players do need enough quiet to hear the sound of the ball coming off an opponent's strings. When planes used to fly overhead at the U.S. Open, blocking out all other noise, a delay in play was allowed. But player grunts aren't that loud. A hindrance is typically defined as something that a player does "solely to distract" an opponent; think of Maria Kirilenko smacking her racquet against the court during a point a couple of years ago. A hindrance can also be called when a player makes a sudden, unexpected, possibly distracting noise during a point; think of the cries that Virginie Razzano made against Serena Williams at the French Open in 2012. I do think Sharapova and Azarenka and others could learn to play without grunting, but I don't think they do it solely to distract their opponents.

I'm guessing much of the controversy comes about because of the sport's genteel tradition. Even now, in many people's eyes, tennis is supposed to be a game of elegance rather than grunt-inducing physicality—that's part of Roger Federer's widespread appeal. And, as you say, there's also the matter of the microphones. John McEnroe complained that the only reason people were shocked by his profanity-laced rage is that everyone watching on TV could hear it; in most other sports, you have to lip-read. When a player in the NFL is miked up, we can hear how loud football is on the field—everyone is grunting, except maybe the quarterback, and he spends much of his time screaming the play call at his teammates. Yet if anyone in the U.S. blamed football players for being too loud, they might have their citizenship revoked.

I'm going to go way out on a limb here and say that there's a sexist component to this controversy. Do you agree? The men also grunt, but do we complain about the women because it just doesn't seem ladylike?

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Steve,

I've always found the Australian crowd's mimicking of Azarenka to be more cruel than affectionate, but perhaps it sounds different when you're in the stadium. I'd also say there was a cruelty to the Brit mocking of grunts, going back to the tabloids and Monica Seles all those years ago.  

We don't see hindrances called for grunting, but we do occasionally see player complaints about it—for example, Sabine Lisicki complained about Bojana Jovanovski at Wimbledon a couple of years ago. There's also a research study that suggests grunting might be a distraction, in that noise can affect shot perception among members of the public watching on-screen.

I rarely see any acknowledgement in the media that grunting has a measurable benefit to players, unrelated to any possible distraction or intimidation. Without getting too much into the mechanics, research published this February found an increase in velocity of shot of 3.8 percent (hat tip to @markalannixon, who tweeted the study) when a loud noise is made. Previous research suggested an increase in velocity of 4.5 M.P.H. on a shot. There are also suggestions that grunting can help a player's concentration and focus.   

I completely agree that an appeal to tradition is part of the controversy over grunting. Wandering around the Internet yesterday, I came across this piece about Federer's first Wimbledon win: The title? GRACE NOT GRUNT WINS THE DAY.

That's exacerbated further when it comes to the women, who are still expected to behave or even play in certain ways. Grunting represents a transgression against norms of behavior that still apply, and the desire to curb it sometimes looks like a simple, "Get in your place, woman, and keep quiet, or we won't like you." I don't hear any difference in volume between David Ferrer's grunt and Errani's, but I don't see pieces written about how Ferrer's grunt prevents people from fully appreciating his game or court craft.  

Tennis coverage can sometimes focus on grunting to the exclusion of play. See, for example, this site's Monterrey coverage a couple of weeks ago, which consisted of one AP piece and one piece about Jovana Jaksic's grunt during the tournament. I can't imagine anything similar happening with a small tournament in which, say, Granollers was playing. And I wonder if I'm contributing to that now—Stuttgart is a WTA tournament with a loaded draw that produces great matches every year, and yet what are we talking about?   

Among fans, well, you only have to read between the lines of any piece about grunting to find some highly entertaining sexism.

I'd say that sexism is more than a component in the debate. I think it informs, consciously or not, the major part of it. What about you? Do you think there's any legitimate reason for the disproportionate amount of attention paid to women who grunt?

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Jewell,

I've also seen studies that show a grunt, or a noise made while exhaling, can help a player hit the ball harder. Daniel Nestor started grunting later in his career, and he thinks it has benefitted him in that way. For me, it seems to be a psychological phenomenon. I feel like I hit the ball harder when I make noise, but, unfortunately, my opponents don't appear to have any more trouble getting to those shots than they usually do.

The question is whether a prolonged noise is necessary to get that benefit. I don't think the ball keeps accelerating if a player keeps screaming. You can sometimes hear Vika and Maria abruptly stop their shrieks and go silent when they see their shot land in the net. That doesn't make me think the length of their noises is absolutely essential.

You're right that there's an edge of mockery to the Aussie's imitations of Azarenka; she has annoyed them for other reasons over the years. As for Maria at Wimbledon, she gets a lot of press attention, and derision, for her shriek. In the recent documentary about Venus and Serena Williams, their mother, Oracene Price, wonders why the British press is obsessed with grunting. But when Sharapova's first grunt echoes around Centre Court, what I usually hear are laughs of disbelief at its volume.

Let me combine your question about whether I think there's a reason women are singled out for grunting, with your observation that Sara Errani's grunt is no louder than David Ferrer's. To me, Errani's is definitely louder, or at least more grating. But is that because, like you said, I unconsciously expect noise from a male athlete, but not from a woman? Can expectations make us hear noises differently? At the same time, I am bothered by noises made by some of the men, including Berlocq, Granollers, and Jerzy Janowicz when he's in full bellow. 

As a proponent—or a non-opponent—of grunting, is there a limit for you? Would you be fine if, in 10 years, every woman player sounded like Sharapova and every man sounded like Janowicz? I'm pretty sure the thought will make many of our readers shudder. Where some fans think grunting is a betrayal of tennis's traditions, do you see it as something positive for women?

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Steve, 

In one of the studies I mentioned earlier, it's possible that players worked harder on a shot when they were grunting, because they already believed it would make them better. In other words, believe grunting will help and it will help. So I wouldn't be at all surprised if there was a psychological aspect to it.    

I don't think any of it is strictly necessary: I think players do it because they, or their coaches, believe it will help their game in various ways (increasing power and helping focus and concentration on a shot being the two most often mentioned).  

There is a theory that the exhalation technique which produces the grunt can be taught without the noise, and I think that's maybe what will start happening, considering that the WTA brought out its own "grunt-o-meter" a couple of years ago. But it really should apply to both tours—grunting isn't something that only women do. I certainly don't want to see the onus laid only on women players to try to be quiet, rather than maximizing their strength, due to a tradition which, when examined, is likely to contain a lot of unpalatable assumptions.  

If your future scenario did happen, would I mind it? I really don't think I would. I don't find myself, now, watching a match without loud grunting, thinking, "Oh, how nice, nobody's making any noise."   

I think there is sometimes a pitch issue with women's grunts compared to men's—women grunting at a higher pitch can be more noticeable. Which maybe helps to explain why it can bother some people more.

The WTA's plans to curb "excessive" grunting are seemingly on a decibel-level basis rather than length of grunt. Do you think that enforcement is possible or desirable on that basis?   

And if tennis was less of a power game than it is now, do you think there would be less perceived need to grunt across both tours, and that it would therefore lessen? If so, do you think there is anything tennis could do or should do, regulation-wise, to bring that situation about?

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Jewell,

I think you’re right that the idea—as well as the fact—that tennis is now a “power game” adds an incentive for players to find any way they can to increase their own power, even through their throats. Which makes sense historically, because modern power-baseline tennis started at the same time, and with the same player, as the grunt: Jimmy Connors introduced both to tennis in the early 1970s. Before him, men and women had played attacking tennis, but their putaway shot had been the volley, which is a short, subtle, controlled punch at the ball. When the putaway shot becomes a full-swinging ground stroke, it makes more sense that it would be accompanied by a full-throated roar that expresses how hard you want to hit the ball.

I was once in favor of measuring the decibels of the WTA's Decibelles, but these days I’m more inclined to leave the whole thing alone. The difficulty for tennis, and specifically for the women's tour, is finding a way to let the players do what they want without making the game into something that its fans don’t want to watch. The tour has vowed to do something about the next generation; the logical starting place is the Bollettieri Academy, where, from Seles to Sharapova, noise has never been frowned upon.

By now, the shriek has been with us for a couple of decades, so it's probably not going anywhere soon. For myself, I doubt I’ll ever think of grunting—loud, extended grunting—as necessary or appealing. But like you, I don't want to see women, specifically, blamed for showing their aggressiveness. And I like tennis enough that, after a few games, I don’t really care what it sounds like.

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