Take the grunt out of tennis

Spiro Zavos Columnist

By Spiro Zavos, Spiro Zavos is a Roar Expert

19 Have your say

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    Russia’s Maria Sharapova returns the ball to Belgium’s Justine Henin - AP Photo/Rick Stevens
    The actor Peter Ustinov, a wit and a tennis tragic, watched Monica Seles grunting her way to a victory at Wimbledon and with a sniffy hauteur said to a friend: ‘I’d hate to be be in the hotel room next door on her wedding night.’

    Forget about wedding nights when grunting and groaning are presumably legitimate noise-making. Let’s just accept that watching someone like Seles play in the past, and now Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open, means subjecting a viewer to the sound pollution of grunts, groans, aaahs, ooohs, eeeaahhs-urrrrrrs, sometimes at a volume of up to 100 decibels a shot which is apparently the volume of sound that a small aircraft nearby makes taking off.

    This sound pollution tactic is increasingly being adopted by players who, admittedly, put less into their shots and their racing around the courts than the star players. It’s being called ‘the counter-grunt.’ The journeyperson Russian player, Elena Dementrieva, for instance, lived up to her name by adopting a double-bang grunt, ‘oooaah- urrrring’, on every shot, whether a great effort was expended or not.

    In the Rafael Nadal-Victor Troiski first-round match we had the phenomenon (first observed by Phil Derriman in the SMH in 2005) of two players grunting in a different key. In this match Nadal grunted in the key of middle C, a baritone sound. Troiski some notes higher, with a soprano pitch to his groans.

    During the commentary of the Maria Sharapova-Lindsay Davenport match which saw a silent Davenport (and she’s the one who’s had a baby) overwhelmed by a grunting, stiff-backed Sharapova, Tracey Austin was asked whether she ever grunted during her illustrious career. ‘I occasionally made a little squeak,’ Austin admitted, ‘when a tremendous effort had to be made to make a return. I’m only 5 foot, 5 inches, after all.’

    It was clear from the Ustinov-like sniffiness of her reply that she disapproved of Sharapova’s grunting and groaning.

    There are two main reasons why sound pollution on the tennis court should be banned: first, it is used as a tactic to unsettle opponents: and second, it makes watching tennis played by grunters and groaners an unpleasant experience, which grates on the pleasure of watching a beautiful sport

    The grunters and groaners deny that they are trying to unsettle opponents. But this is clearly at the heart of the tactic. The retired Wimbledon referee Alan Mills told reporters some years ago that coaches were training women players, in particular, to grunt as loud as they can.

    Martina Navratilova, who despised the tactic, pointed out that tennis players rely on the sound of the ball coming off an opponent’s racket to a certain extent to give them clues about its velocity, direction and the spin on the shot. How convenient it is that the grunting denies a skillful player this basic information.

    In the 1992 quarter-final at Wimbledon, Steffi Graf demanded that Monica Seles, grunting at a 93 decibel level, shut up. Seles eventually lost the match to Graf.

    Then there is the unpleasant nature of the sound. For the two hours or so playing Sharapova, say, her opponent and viewers are subjected to an unceasing flow of unpleasant noise, rather like being forced to listen to a heavy metal radio station in a locked room with the sound distorted because the tuning is off-station.

    Earlier this year John Newcombe called for grunting to be banned on the tennis court by the organisers of the major tournaments. This is a campaign that deserves the support of everyone who loves the spectacle and the beauty of tennis. The secrets of the bedroom should be kept to the bedroom.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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    The Crowd Says (19)

    • January 23rd 2008 @ 10:28am
      John said | January 23rd 2008 @ 10:28am | ! Report

      You have to wonder where this all started from. Who was the first person to start this grunting – it’s quite odd? Other than weightlifting, is it a feature of any other sports? I must admit, I’m pretty baffled by it.

    • January 23rd 2008 @ 10:31am
      MIckeyM said | January 23rd 2008 @ 10:31am | ! Report

      Hear, hear, Spiro. The grunts and shrieks are a disgrace, and should be banned. The way Sharapova in particular elongates her shriek to almost the point where the opponent is hitting the ball is just plain bad sportsmanship.

      There is no doubt that this is a deliberate tactic. If you have seen Sharapova on the practice court, you will note a complete lack of grunts/shrieks. Likewise, when she has to scramble to get to a shot, there is little noise on hitting the ball.

      Apart from the bad sportsmanship angle, it really does put you off as a spectator. I wonder how many people have to tune out before the organisers do something about it…

    • January 23rd 2008 @ 6:48pm
      Stoffy said | January 23rd 2008 @ 6:48pm | ! Report

      Todays Venus Williams v Ana Ivanovic match was a noice pollution nightmare. Williams yell and Ivanovic’s donkey-like cry was too much to absorb.

      Sharapova needs to tone down a bit, being the opposition would be a terrible when in a point all you hear is shreaks.

      Very well every so often a bit of emotion should be let slip, but every shot, no

    • January 23rd 2008 @ 7:46pm
      Phil Coorey said | January 23rd 2008 @ 7:46pm | ! Report

      John, I think the first was Seles. She was the first I can remember anyway…

      My god it is annoying and the reason I don’t watch womens tennis. It gets to me on the highlights as well.

      Hewitt’s annoying C’Mon cry is a pain in the butt as well so is his Mats Wilander rip off where he points his hand at his face.

    • January 23rd 2008 @ 11:33pm
      Tony P said | January 23rd 2008 @ 11:33pm | ! Report

      I honestly think Sharapova is always up to something, seeing her dad is always doing something wierd, even he did the cut-throat gesture the other day. So funny when the commentators humor him. Anyway, clearly she’s using it as a tactic to throw the opppenent off guard. Wouldn’t you just crack up laughing if someone kept making the sound they make in the bedroom?

    • January 24th 2008 @ 9:26am
      Mike said | January 24th 2008 @ 9:26am | ! Report

      I think it would be a great counter tactic, particularly from a slightly masculine opponent (shall we say even, a girl who lies other girls), to respond to each grunt with “oh yeah baby”. Can you imagine the sound?? “uuuhhhh, oh yeah baby, uuuuhhhh, oh yeah baby, uuuhhhh, oh yeah baby…..the crowd would be losing it!

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