From the Penalty Spot: Grunting and Screaming in Lawn tennis, is there any limit to it?

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Good day sports fans, welcome to another tale from today’s foul call “From the Penalty spot”.

After series of warning and yellow cards, we have decided to point to the most dreaded spot of the pitch, the Penalty Spot.

We will be looking at a very delicate and troubling matter. Today’s issue sailed beyond the shores of football pitch and tackling moves, we will be looking at “The Gentleman’s game”, Lawn Tennis and an issue that has come to plague it lately or since it’s first reported case in 1988, Grunting or Screaming.

Grunting in tennis is the very loud noise, sometimes described as “shrieking” or “screaming”, made by some players while hitting their shots. It is prominent in both men’s and women’s tennis, although heard much more in women’s tennis. Many players and spectators find it to be distracting or obnoxious above a certain sound level.

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It’s hard to say when it really started, but former world number one Jimmy Connors was among the early male grunters, while eight-time Grand Slam winner and Andy Murray’s former coach, Ivan Lendl, complained about Andre Agassi during the 1988 US Open.

Virginia Wade’s verdict: “I don’t think anyone really grunted that much when I was playing.”

In the ongoing Wimbledon game between former champion Maria Sharapova (the most famous and successful grunter) and American Coco Vandeweghe, the spectators weren’t just thrilled with the game that saw the Russian player qualify for the semi-finals, it was her shrieks and screams that left a lasting memory in the heart of Wimbledon fans that watched the match, some wished they came with ear plugs.

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The 23 year old American had to complain to the umpire the effect of the scream and wished if Sharapova could lower the decibel of her scream.

Scores of Wimbledon viewers also tweeted their complain over the ear-splitting grunts during Sharapova’s latest match claiming they were so loud they had to mute their televisions.

Many have called for grunting to be banned or at least be made punishable.

In the 1988 US Open, Ivan Lendl complained about Andre Agassi’s grunting,

“When Agassi went for a big shot, his grunt was much louder. It threw off my timing.” In the 2009 French Open, Aravane Rezaï complained to the umpire about Michelle Larcher de Brito’s “shrieking”, which led to a Grand Slam supervisor being brought to the court. No action was taken against Larcher de Brito and she was booed off the court.

Afterwards former tennis player Martina Navratilova said that grunting was a form of cheating, “The grunting has reached an unacceptable level. It is cheating, pure and simple. It is time for something to be done.” She also cited Roger Federer as an example of a successful player who doesn’t grunt: “Roger Federer doesn’t make a noise when he hits the ball, go and listen.” The concern was not limited to mere distraction or unpleasantness. In particular, Navratilova was concerned that grunting drowned out the sound of the ball leaving the grunter’s racquet and prevented an experienced opponent from using that clue as to force and spin to address his or her reception of the ball and the return stroke.

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Another former player, Chris Evert, stopped short of labelling it as cheating but said, “I wouldn’t go that far [to say it’s cheating] but I think the grunts are getting louder and more shrill now with the current players.”

Michelle Larcher de Brito has often defended “grunting”.She is arguably the most exaggerated female grunter.

Some tennis players have defended grunting. Michelle Larcher de Brito, who had a reported decibel reading of 109, said, “If people don’t like my grunting, they can always leave”.

In a different interview she said, “Nobody can tell me to stop grunting. Tennis is an individual sport and I’m an individual player. If they have to fine me, go ahead, because I’d rather get fined than lose a match because I had to stop grunting.” 

Former Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova, who has officially reached 101 decibels (a lion’s roar is 110 decibels, a rocket launch is 180 decibels, a police siren is 115 decibels, a fire cracker is 145 decibels), stated, “I’ve done this ever since I started playing tennis and I’m not going to change.”

Former Women’s World Number 1, Serena Williams, said that opponents grunting doesn’t affect her, “I just play my game and sometimes I grunt and sometimes I don’t. I’m not conscious when I’m doing it. I’m just zoned out. It doesn’t really affect me if my opponent is [grunting].”

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With the volume of players scream getting louder lately, it is also worthy to note that it has enhanced their game and made them better players than they believed they could have been, it’s like the louder they scream, the harder their hits.

And this tendency is being inculcated from their academy during their tender ages of training, the art of grunting and screaming is believed to been taught and practiced.

Louise Deeley, a sports psychologist at Roehampton University, believes that grunting is part of the rhythm for tennis players: “The timing of when they actually grunt helps them with the rhythm of how they’re hitting and how they’re pacing things”. She also believes that banning grunting isn’t the solution: “They may feel, on the surface, that this is going to be a distraction to their game, that it is part and parcel of what they do.” Bruce Lynne, a physiologist at University College London, believes that reflexes might have an effect, “If you’re looking at reflexes in the legs and you ask someone to clench their jaw, then believe it or not, the reflexes in their legs get brisker, that’s a well-known problem called re-enforcement.”

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Some players and commentators have noted the connection with pro tennis trainer Nick Bollettieri, who has personally trained the majority of the controversially loud “grunters” including Larcher de Brito, Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova, Andre Agassi, and the Williams sisters, leading to repeated accusations that he has been deliberately teaching grunting as a novel tactic in order to give his latest generation of students an edge in competitive play.

Bollettieri has denied teaching grunting as a distraction tactic, and says grunting is natural, “I prefer to use the word ‘exhaling’. I think that if you look at other sports, weightlifting or doing squats or a golfer when he executes the shot or a hockey player, the exhaling is a release of energy in a constructive way.”

In 2011, after Danish player Caroline Wozniacki (then the world champion) publicly accused Bollettieri’s students of cheating by grunting, Women’s Tennis Association Chairman Stacy Allaster stated that the WTA would be “talking to the Bollettieri academy” about the predominance of loud grunters from that institution and how it could be eliminated from the next generation of players. One year later, a division of Bollettieri’s academy released a document calling grunting “unsportsmanlike” and acknowledging that it obscures the sound of string impact (as noted by Navratilova), resulting in “an increase in an opponent’s decision error, and a slower response time”.

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With constant complaints and from both players and fans, there are requests for actions to be taken for players who breach the decibel level with loud screams or grunts.

In 2012, the Women’s Tennis Association  (WTA) said there was a need for an objective measure of when a player makes too much noise and suggested a decibel meter could be introduced, three years later, no such innovation has materialised.

The WTA later wrote in a report: “Umpires can act on grunting, but only if they decide a player falls foul of the hindrance rule. That states that a player will lose a point if they hinder their opponent’s play ‘with a deliberate act’.”

Rather than bringing in a decibel meter, the authorities want to tackle the issue through education, though they recognise players cannot be silent when they hit the ball hard.

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“We take this matter seriously and are working effectively to educate the next generation of players. Our goal is to drive excessive grunting out of the game, especially for the next generation of player,” said the WTA.

It is believed that lawn tennis is a gentleman’s game, usually played by royalties, when it was first introduced between 1856 and 1859, silent achievers, but it seems lately we are stuck with noisy hitting for the time being, just remember to bring your ear plugs when next you sit to watch a game of deuce.

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