Page last updated at 09:43 GMT, Monday, 22 June 2009 10:43 UK

What a racket

Clockwise from left: Michelle Larcher de Brito, Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova and Andre Agassi

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

A quiet revolution is engulfing tennis, as spectators and players say enough is enough to grunting. As Wimbledon begins, why is it that players are making so much noise?

For decades the familiar sound of a rubber ball striking the strings of a tennis racket has evoked memories of Wimbledon, long summer evenings and strawberries.

But as the world's oldest tennis tournament begins in the sleepy London suburb, there are fears that some women's matches now bear more of an aural resemblance to a torture chamber.

Some players accompany each stroke with such a loud and prolonged grunt/shriek that spectators and opponents have complained.

HISTORY OF GRUNTING
Jimmy Connors
1974: Grunting pioneer Jimmy Connors wins first Wimbledon title
1988: Ivan Lendl complains about Andre Agassi at US Open
1992: Monica Seles spoken to by officials at Wimbledon
2005: Maria Sharapova's grunt reaches 101 decibels
2009: Michelle Larcher de Brito receives unofficial warning at Roland Garros

Last month, the French Open witnessed a new high water mark in the grunting controversy, when 16-year-old Michelle Larcher de Brito was booed off court by the crowd. Portuguese player Larcher de Brito, whose grunt has all the aural elements of a wounded fox, was the subject of a complaint to the umpire by her French opponent. A Grand Slam official arrived on court but no action was taken.

Grunting has appeared like a boisterous and unwelcome guest in a sport steeped in etiquette since its genteel beginnings 150 years ago on a croquet lawn in Birmingham.

But it's not a new development. As far back as the 1970s, Jimmy Connors was renowned for his noisy game, and Ivan Lendl complained about Andre Agassi's expressive exertions putting him off at the US Open in 1988.

But, in what could be interpreted as a sexist backlash, it is only since women took up the habit that it has become much of an issue.

Monica Seles was one of the first female exponents, sparking complaints from Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon in 1992. There are even suggestions that her quieter demeanour in the final contributed to her thrashing by Steffi Graf.

Quiet please

At 101 decibels, Maria Sharapova is officially the loudest. Larcher de Brito's noises - a YouTube hit - have yet to be measured but they seem to take grunting to a new level, one that is louder, longer and more high-pitched.

DO AMATEUR PLAYERS GRUNT?
Lawn Tennis Association coach Marcus Aldworth says he rarely hears it and certainly doesn't teach it
"If kids are coming through and putting that much pace on the ball and their timing is that good, then grunting will happen naturally.
"But it could also be a waste of energy and if you do a shriek and yell, where is the focus in that?"

So why do players do it?

It benefits your game, says former British number one Jo Durie, although she thinks it can be done more quietly.

"It should be more like a breath coming out, without a noise attached," she says. "It does help to exhale as you're going to hit the ball because everything builds up and is then released when you hit the ball.

"We tell juniors when they strike the ball just to make a slight noise to help with their timing.

"It makes them concentrate on the timing of the stroke and gets the breath out of the body."

WHAT DO THE PLAYERS SAY?
Maybe I can eventually put it under control. I don't know, but I'll try. It comes from Seles; it comes from Sharapova. It comes from great players
Michelle Larcher de Brito

I've done this ever since I started playing tennis and I'm not going to change
Maria Sharapova

When she was playing, reaching world number five in 1984, grunting was rarely heard, says Durie.

Most top players emit an indiscernible version, she says, but there are moments in a match when even the quietest players suddenly need to let off steam as they hit the ball. It could be a particularly powerful stroke, or the end of a long rally, or a tense point.

The problem now, she says, is that some players do it too loudly and for too long, and the noise is still ringing around the court when the opponent is trying to make the stroke. It's still evident in the men's game but it's not as annoying.

"When men do it, I call it a grunt, but the women's is a shriek. That's the difference. The shriek is just so horrible. I can't bear watching De Brito and sometimes I have to commentate on her matches. It's horrible and off-putting."

Durie does not believe it's deliberate, just a habit that has developed, but other former players say it is damaging the women's game.

The BBC's face of Wimbledon, Sue Barker, says she has received countless complaints from spectators who say it is spoiling their enjoyment.

And Martina Navratilova, winner of 59 Grand Slam titles and a stoic non-grunter, believes it's a diversionary tactic. She recently said that grunting was a form of cheating and should be banned, because it masks the sound of the ball on the racket - something that top opponents read to their advantage.

Grunting = exhaling

But Nick Bollettieri, seen by many as the world's top tennis coach, and whose proteges include many of the noisiest players, says grunting is natural, not planned.

"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," says Bollettieri, speaking to the BBC News Magazine.

Nick Bollettieri
Breathing all the time and making noise can take your energy but overall it does help
Nick Bollettieri

"If you hold your lips tightly, you're not breathing and you become very tense and less flexible so you get tight more quickly."

He runs a tennis academy in Florida and has worked with 10 players who have been ranked world number one, including Boris Becker, Agassi, Seles, Sharapova and Martina Hingis.

Players are not coached to grunt but to breathe properly, he says, and it should be done in a manner that's constructive.

"Breathing all the time and making noise can [sap] your energy but overall it does help. It relaxes and releases energy."

The reason why some manage to exhale without the noise is impossible to answer, he says, because no two players are the same.

It's not an intentional distraction, he says, but if it is affecting opponents then something needs to be done. He even suggests the worst offenders should be docked points, even games and matches.

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One man and his grunt

So what do the rules say?

These are primarily the responsibility of the world governing body, the International Tennis Federation which is based in Roehampton, south-west London.

Neither grunting nor any noise obstruction is mentioned in the rules, says a spokesman, and there are no plans to amend them.

Extract from Rules of Tennis 2009
The existing rules could be invoked if noise was distracting

On page 12 of the Rules of Tennis 2009, there is a section called "hindrance", which says that if player is hindered by an opponent then he or she wins the point, unless it's unintentional, in which case the point is replayed.

Venus Williams had a point deducted under this rule when her hair beads fell out in an Australian Open match in 1999. But it's never been invoked to take action against a noisy player. Maybe now is the time.

"It's always been at the discretion of the umpire, the whole issue of players grunting or shrieking or whatever," says the ITF spokesman.

"In terms of the rules, an umpire must decide that a player was making unnecessary noise."

If the decibel levels increase at Wimbledon during the next fortnight, then expect the officials to be all ears.


Below is a selection of your comments.

I am a great tennis fan but have to admit that myself, friends and family have become so fed up with this silly grunting and shrieking that it spoils it for us. The tennis federation should bring in rules to forbid this, it is so unnecessary and spoils the image of the game.
Alison Coles, Louth, Lincolnshire, England

If the crowd make a noise or shout out during a rally then umpire tells them to be quiet, so why not the players. If someone from the crowd called out as each ball was hit they would soon be stopped. Besides it completely spoils the enjoyment of watching the game.
Phil Flannery, Sheffield

As someone who has been involved in martial arts over the years. I have been often asked why Bruce Lee screamed or yelled in a curious manner in his films. The "Kia" as its called, is used to release power ("chi") and to unnerve and frighten the opponent. To develop it to such a pitch takes practise and abdominal strength, as the yell or scream comes from proper use of the diaphragm. So these tennis players are helping the power of their shots by using it. On the other hand they may are also be aware of the effect it can have on their opponents gamesmanship and are using the Kia both as a source of extra oomphh and to unsettle the opponent. It's not unfair as two can play at that game.
Mike Clayden, Didcot Oxfordshire

You can't compare weightlifting, doing squats, a golfer when he executes the shot or a hockey player to tennis! Why? Because they are either 1) solo pursuits or 2) noise sports.

If in golf someone let rip a "EENURRRGH!" during another player's backswing there'd be uproar! Tennis (like golf) is more a 'civilised' sport when, during the action, there is polite silence to enable the player(s) to concentrate. As such, overly loud/long/frequent grunting/shrieking should be treated as an attempt to distract the acting player.
James B, Sheffield, UK

The grunting is part of tennis now. The other player should be concentrating so much on his game that he doesn't really hear the noise. Most complain when they are losing. If a player is told to stop during a match then that could lead to them losing.......
Doreen, Swindon

I really can not abide the nightmarish shrieks from the female players, but I can't turn the volume down as I love the sound of the ball. I am just watching women's tennis less and less, which is a shame as it is already watched and enjoyed less than the men's by everybody. Bring in a new rule please! and make the ladies game watchable again.
Zoe, Nottingham

I stopped watching women's tennis because of the chorus of grunts. It had turned into a ridiculous 'arms race' of who can grunt the loudest. I can't be the only one annoyed by it. The less people watch, the less advertisers and sponsors will be interested in the women's game and everyone involved will suffer. Ridiculous to ban it but why not rein it in a bit?
Jo, Lincoln

I do not understand the problem with grunting. If a player feels that they cannot strike the ball without grunting then they cant. It is not the fault that they need to make a noise and break a habit of a lifetime. If they cant help it, they cant help it you cannot blame them.
Martin, Stanley

I can see both sides of the argument. On the one hand the shrieking is clearly an expression of the power that goes into hitting the ball, without which I think some players would suffer. However, it is also clear that such noises can be distracting to some players, not to mention annoying for the rest of us. Why not monitor the noise level, and warn players when their cries exceed some sensible limit?
Nathan, Oxfordshire

What is the problem. It's been known for quite some time in other sports and in particular martial arts that you should exhale when striking your opponent to enhance your power in the strike. Tennis should be no different, they just need to show a little more control in the noise department thats all.
Gary, Bristol



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