Grunting In Tennis

THE CONTROVERSY OVER GRUNTING IN TENNIS

At a recent training camp during lunch break, I was approached by a middle aged woman. She said, “I would like my son to take lessons from you. I have seen your work with children and I know that you are a very good coach”. And then came the “but”, “but I don’t like the fact that you don’t discourage the kids from grunting”. At this point, I already knew that this was not about tennis lessons and her next remark confirmed  just that: “As we were playing, one of your students (happens to be a highly ranked nine year old girl) was grunting very loud and we had to stop playing several times because it was distracting”. And then, she bragged about her being a former “Alpha female athlete”, which obviously in her mind, made her an expert on the subject of “grunting”, and  lectured me some more about  why  “tennis players should not grunt”.

I responded very politely and expressed my regret for the inconvenience and assured her that I will not encourage her son to grunt if he ever signed up for lessons with me. As she walked away, I was thinking to myself, “Wow, this lady has a lot of nerve”,  here is why: The group of ladies that she was playing with (3.5 level at best) were constantly making loud remarks at the end of every point, in addition to their repeated giggling, which can be a distraction to some, also when the gardener was mowing the adjacent grass with his heavy machinery or when the fire trucks went by with deafening sirens their game was never interrupted.

I’m convinced that if a couple of “top notch” college players were grunting their lungs out on the next court, this lady wouldn’t have complained to anyone. I actually find this incident amusing and frankly, think that these ladies were intimidated by this highly skilled “munchkin”. I don’t believe for a moment that this little girl was grunting in such an outrageous or distracting manner and in my book, any adult who can’t cope with a nine year old girl’s grunting has got some issues – I recommend “meditation/medication”.  Actually, I am glad that this incident has happened and thankful to the lady in the park for inspiring me to write about this controversial subject of grunting which is much ado about nothing.

Tai chi, the ancient Chinese form of martial arts, has been taught for thousands of years well before tennis was invented. One form of Tai chi is about meditation, slow movement and controlled slow breathing. The other is about combative maneuvers using explosive power, thus using the same form of exhaling that in tennis we call “grunting”.

Grunting is a naturally occurring respiratory function. It happens as a result of a sudden outburst of air while relaxing the contracted abdominal muscles. Athletes in many sports use this technique to maximize explosive power, to name a few, weight lifting, martial arts, boxing, fencing, track & field (javelin throw, shot put, discus, hammer throw,) dunking in basketball, spiking in volleyball,  football and many other sports . Yet only tennis players get a bad rap about it.

All tennis professionals grunt. The only difference is the decibel level,  believe it or not, Roger Federer grunts too.  By doing so, they are able to produce power and optimize their timing. Trying to hit a powerful serve or a “big” forehand with no grunt is equivalent to a martial arts master breaking twelve bricks releasing no sound. You may have noticed that some of the pros grunt not once, but twice when they hit the ball. It is true. The first grunt happens when the ball bounces and the player tightens his abs. The second one occurs when hitting the ball and the athlete releases his breath. In a way, this is very similar to the method used in junior development programs. Kids are trained to say “bounce” when the ball bounces and “hit” when they hit the ball This is a helpful tip even for adults new to the game.

Monica Seles, arguably the “Mother of all grunters”, was one of the first players who got it right. You could practically hear her out of the stadium when she was playing.  Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi didn’t hold back with their vocals either.  Nadal, Djokovic, Serena, Maria Sharapova, the new generation, are well known for their signature grunts in their own right as well.

Apparently, all these players have one thing in common, they grunt because it benefits their game or else they wouldn’t be doing so. If you asked anyone of them if they are aware of it during playing time, most likely the answer would be  no. It is a part of a trance they are in and their brain is too busy making tactical and strategic decisions.  All the criticism directed toward these players in regards to their grunting is absurd. It usually comes from the “Old school” ideology that tennis is a “Gentleman’s game”, or from feminists who feel that it is unfeminine to grunt.  These players have reached such an amazing level of excellence that none of the critics will ever know. Let’s learn from them and try to emulate their path to greatness. It is time to become more open minded and put a stop to this useless hoopla.

Not only that I’m convinced that grunting benefits the players , there is no doubt that it adds to the festivity of any tennis event. It is a direct barometer of the competitors’ effort level. It provides intensity to the slug fest and makes the crowd more involved. All in all, it makes it a lot more fun. Take the grunting out of a tennis match and you’ll have boring tennis with the mute button on.

Players don’t begin grunting just when they turn pro. It begins already in junior competition. Believe me, as a coach for many years, I know. After accompanying my students to hundreds of tournaments, these are my conclusions:  Kids that grunt were more powerful, more confident, more skilled, less likely to get cramps, had better energy management (more stamina) and generally had better ranking.

Here are a couple of stats to look at :

  • Not a single player has ever been penalized, suspended or fined because of grunting.
  • Tennis pros are “Zens” in their field; therefore, grunting is not a distraction to them, (a couple of them complained about being distracted by it, either because they haven’t reached such a high level of professionalism, or they just tried to mess with their opponent’s head).
  • The use of Grunting has been around for a long time and it is here to stay.

As for “the lady in the park” my advice to her is this: GET OVER IT. star games

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