If I were to pen a riddle about this topic it would go something like this: what sound is a sign of severe respiratory distress in a child or preparation for speech in babies, yet is a source of annoyance to spectators viewing a tennis match? If you were to guess grunting, you would be on the ball.
One would have to be deaf not to have noticed that the courts on the WTA circuit are somewhat quieter the last few months. This is due to the conspicuous absence of Maria Sharapova. The Siberian diva and her signature ear-piercing grunt have been sidelined for the rest of the season by a shoulder injury. Although Sharapova is an extreme and expert poster child for that note, the men are not immune. Rafael Nadal seems to have taken lessons from some of the great Spanish tenors. Nowadays, grunting has become commonplace on tour. Just like voices, the sound varies in intensity and cadence. Undoubtedly, the player who opened the laryngeal gates and brought grunting into the spotlight was Serbian Monica Seles. This tone turned out to be such a distraction that at the 1992 Wimbledon finals, Seles was asked to keep the decibel down which may have thrown off her rhythm and cost her the match against Steffi Graff. Perhaps, Seles’ inability to vocalize may have dampened the weight of her shots. After all, tennis players are creatures of habit and a bit superstitious.
Facing Andre Agassi in the 1982 semifinal at the U.S Open, Czech Ivan Lendl cited that his opponent’s grunting was a mental distraction particularly considering it had never been an issue he had previously encountered. Luckily, Lendl was able to focus enough and win the match. Although athletes are famous for their powers of concentration, it is hard to fathom how a noise which can seem as loud as a subway train is not a disturbance. Therefore, it leaves one to wonder whether all this ruckus is really necessary.
Unquestionably, with grunting, there is a degree of gamesmanship involved. After all, silence clues the opponent in as to the type of shot coming off one’s racket from the sound the ball makes when it touches the strings. Despite negating that component of the game, grunting has been silently accepted. Even more remarkably, players have found a way to work around that obstacle and still produce high quality matches.
As stadium spectators, we all wish we could turn down the volume, or better yet, press the mute button when watching certain players. With Sharapova’s injury requiring physical rehabilitation, enjoy the relative quiet the next few months. Soon enough, it will be time to break out the earplugs again.