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Jan 25, 2013

Quiet, please! Grunting tennis players are simply cheating

There's a very clear rule in the International Tennis Federation that says if a player is hindering the play -- even unintentionally -- the point should be replayed. So why aren't the female players who grunt getting in trouble?


Hooray for Li Na, whose defeat of Maria Sharapova yesterday guarantees that there will be relative quiet from at least one end of the court in the Australian Open women’s final tomorrow night.

Her opponent, Victoria Azarenka, lets out a long, agonised shriek every time she hits the ball. It begins with her backswing, increases at the point of impact, then lingers at sustained volume almost until the person across the net gets to takes a swipe.

Azarenka’s vocal histrionics are far from unique. Female players who don’t grunt loudly with every shot are now a rarity. Channel Seven can have fun with their shriek meter decibel count, but the gimmick hides a nasty truth of the modern game: grunting during a point is cheating, pure and simple.

Here’s the applicable International Tennis Federation rule:

26. HINDRANCE If a player is hindered in playing the point by a deliberate act of the opponents(s), the player shall win the point.”

Note: win the point. No let. No warning.

The key word in that rule is “deliberate”. The players who grunt and their defenders argue that all the noise is just an involuntary physical response to the exertion of hitting the ball.

Yet a generation ago — before Chris Evert and Monica Seles were allowed to establish the habit — none of the top players felt compelled to grunt like rutting elks. There are still plenty of competitors (most notably Roger Federer) who seem able to win umpteen Grand Slams without bellowing to the bleachers with every hit.

And the full-throttle swings of golfers, cricket batsmen and baseball hitters — all of which require at least as much physical effort as a tennis ground-stroke — can apparently be executed without the athlete emitting so much as a peep. In any case, the “involuntary” excuse is already covered in ITF Rule 26:

“The point shall be replayed if a player is hindered in playing the point by either an unintentional act of the opponent(s), or something outside the player’s own control.”

In other words, a player who objected to the distracting noise coming from the other end of the court could ask that the previous point be replayed, again and again, until their opponent desisted, retired or was defaulted.

Loud, prolonged vocalising during a point is cheating not just because it is a distraction, but because it also robs the opponent of crucial sensory information.

As any bat-and-ball sport participant knows, the precise timing and sound of the ball strike and bounce provide vital cues as to spin, strength of shot, and speed and height off the ground. If these are masked by any additional sound then you are robbed of information that helps fashion the best response.

Imagine, in cricket, a bowler yelling out loudly during delivery to cover the sound of a bouncer hitting the pitch so that the batsmen then has trouble picking up the flight of the ball. Same effect.

In tennis, the grunt does nothing to improve the grunter’s shot, but potentially does plenty to handicap their competitor. Which is why so many players grunt for so long and loud. And it’s not just the female tennis players who indulge — Jimmy Connors and Rafael Nadal have been known to grunt.

It’s a form of cheating so endemic that the Women’s Tennis Association last year announced a tepid set of proposals aimed at diminishing the practice (but without penalising current offenders). Pure PR, with no discernible result.

So why has this so far gone unpunished? Because the players are now so rich and powerful that they run the sport.

Central umpires could stamp out the practice forever by applying the “hindrance” rule at the next Grand Slam tournament. But they are employed as part of the tour, and are all too concerned for their jobs to take any direct action on themselves.

Where is Darrell Hair when you need him?



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26 thoughts on “Quiet, please! Grunting tennis players are simply cheating

  1. frey

    If you want to use a Cricket analogy you should at least understand some history.

    The great Spinner Clarrie Grimmett would use a tactic of similar distraction (coy courtesy of CricInfo):

    “After the standard legbreak, topspinner and googly there came the flipper – which took several years to perfect, and which, when batsmen tried to discern by the snap of his fingers, he smokescreened by snapping the fingers of his left hand as he released a legbreak”

    Of which there was no great reaction that the writer imagnies.

    Additionally, if you rely on sound (rather than sight) to gauge the flight of the ball then a grunting bowler is the least of your worries.

  2. Steve777

    I couldn’t agree more. Tennis authorities really should crack down of the grunt. It’s purpose is either to disguise the sound of the ball on the racquet or to put off the opponent. In either case it is cheating. Nothing like that would be tolerated in cricket, for example (bowler ‘ahhhhhhh!!!!!’ and batsman ‘weeeeeeeee!!!!’). And it’s so inelegant, as if the players belched or farted loudly or imitated a barnyard animal when they served or returned. It is not a natural consequence of exertion. It has only been the practice for the past 20 years or so. Greats of the past – Newcombe, Goolagong et al didn’t do it. It should be stopped.

  3. robinw

    Here, here! I’ve long stopped watching women’s tennis because of the grunts and screams of the GruntALotOva’s and her compatriots. As far as I’m concerned a pox on the game and I will never watch it again while the screamers are allowed to continue with their unfair behaviour.

  4. Spike

    Here’s an idea! Tennis Australia/world /universe makes an ironclad rule: ANY noise,from a player loses that player one point. Agreed Steve777.

  5. klewso

    From media treatment, when Armstrong cheats and it’s “all hands on neck”?
    When these women trying for an unfair advantage over their opponents (to distract them) it’s “eveyone line up for a photo op”?

  6. Venise Alstergren

    DAVID SALTER: Could not agree with you more. Not only is the noise unbearable-I now refuse to go to, or switch onto the women’s tennis-but don’t players need to hear the sound of the opponent’s racquet, as the ball comes off it, to help them decide which shot to play?

    Maria Sharapova’s vocal chords should be cut, and Victoria Azarenka sounds as if she is having a mini-orgasm every time she strikes the ball. It would be a great comedy skit, but, that’s not what she’s paid for.

    Non withstanding the fact that a few of the men have started to grunt-the Spanish guy who played Federer in the quarter finals, being a case in point-it is almost revolting to watch as no one at the tennis seems at worried by this flagrant cheating. Three years ago there was a lot of spectator unrest. Today anything goes!

  7. Venise Alstergren

    PS: At one stage it looked as if the women’s finals would come down to Venus Williams versus Victoria Azarenka. The spectators would have needed to wear those orange noise mufflers.

  8. Arty

    and let us not forget the deliberate time wasting. If the 20 second rule was treated as a rule, there would be less need for matches to go beyond midnight.

  9. Pierre de Chazal

    I totally agree with David Salter’s article on the loathsome practice of shrieking when hitting the tennis ball. It is clearly intended to distract the opponent and I am constantly amazed that umpires do nothing about it.

    As I have no other control over it, my reaction is to cease watching a match in which systematic shrieking occurs – advertisers might take note and decline to advertise when players such as Azarenka are on court.

  10. mikeb

    No matter how annoying it is I doubt that the grunting/wailing etc does distract an opponent. If it did they would be complaining about it. As I understand it the sound is used to psychologically help with timing of the hit – although oddly enough you rarely hear it on the practice court. A few of the men also grunt a lot but it is less annoying because of the lower pitch. As an aside – “injury” timeouts, esp prevalent amongst the women, should be looked at. That episode by Azarenka was a disgrace.

  11. thelorikeet

    Maybe there should be a pecuniary element here. Every grunt or shriek is $100 off the prize money ($66 for the men, who get the some prizes for 3-5 sets as women for 2-3). At say 3 shots per point per rally and 5 points per game and 10 games per set, a shriek on every hit is that $45k for a three setter. Proceeds to some suitable charity

  12. Gervase Greene

    Furious agreement with David Salter’s fatwa on grunting tennis players. As far as I am concerned it is yet one more reason not to watch a game for which I have never had much sympathy.
    Unlike cricket, and there I take issue with Mr Salter’s comments that a batsman might suffer a disadvantage if he were prevented from hearing “the sound of a bouncer hitting the pitch” as he would have “trouble picking up the flight of the ball.”
    I can assure Mr Salter if he waits that long he would indeed experience “trouble”. A really good bouncer will begin its journey at 160km/h. (Test standard, sure, but valid for this exercise). And that from only 20 metres away from the batsman – probably closer, given most effective bouncers involve a blatant over-stepping of the crease.
    The maths goes thus: a very hard ball travelling at 160km/h for all of 0.02 kms. The batsman has 0.36 seconds before it arrives, theoretically. Given the ball loses speed relatively quickly mid-flight, let’s call it 0.5 seconds all-up.
    If Mr Salter’s battsman is hoping the thud of the ball on the turf will provide useful information with which to fashion a response, it will be as nothing compared to the resounding bell-ringer he experiences when it finishes its fateful journey.
    Mr Slater does indeed have a valid point, but I think it is best left to the centre court. A batsman may well appeal against a fast bowler’s audible exertion, but it will most likely be on his way back to the pavilion. Or lodged posthumously.

  13. Venise Alstergren

    Serious Cricket lovers might like the following “Chinaman” : The Legend of Pradeep Mathew (Shehan Karunatilaka) G B 2011.

  14. Andybob

    I was at the Federer/Tsonga quarter final, having not watched Tennis for a good while, and was surprised at Tsonga’s grunting. He appears to be a minor offendor compared to some of the current crop.

    Something is rotten in the state of Denmark if the Umpires cant apply the rules for fear of losing their jobs.

  15. Steve777

    Mikeb @ 10

    “…although oddly enough you rarely hear it on the practice court”

    I think that’s the dead giveaway, it’s not physical exertion, it’s a deliberate tactic. The referees rightly ask the spectators to be quiet. the same should go for the players.

  16. floorer

    So it’s go Li Na.

  17. AR

    I was surprised to hear a group of my mother’s elderly friends criticising the yells as “not naice” to hear coming from young women.

  18. zut alors

    Like Robinw at 1.49pm I ceased watching when the grunt/shriek brigade infiltrated the game.

    These days I only watch when the players are courteous and abide by rule 26 – which means I see very little tennis. The game has been tainted and should be cleaned-up.

  19. David Hand

    This article is why I haven’t watched womens tennis for about 5 years.

  20. Blaggers

    …and in implementing the Hinderance rule, the referees should use their power to ban the squeak coming from the shoes. Just as in the grunt, players use this noise to distract and hinder their opponents with incessant squeaking. I’ve been to a few practice sessions and have not heard the squeak. Case closed.  The modern shoes are another tool in the players arsenal to help them cheat through weak implementation of the Hinderance rule. I personally cannot watch the tennis anymore with the volume on as the squeak coming from the shoes raises the hair on the back of my neck and I cannot concentrate on the fine play on show. I cannot imagine how distracting this must be for the players. I’m sure it is a ploy by the shoe manufacturers to subliminally send messages to purchase their product. 

    Not only should all noise emanating from the players been banned under the Hinderance rule, all bright clothing and footwear should also be considered a Hinderance. Wearing all these bright colours surely hides and hinders the opponents observation of the ball coming towards them. I could not concentrate properly on Federer’s match as I was constantly distracted by his hot pink shoes and laces. I could not imagine having to play Federer in those  coloured shoes as my play would be hindered and I, let alone anyone else who plays him, would not be able to give him a proper run for his money.

    These players are clearly rorting the system with their subtle yet indiscreet cheating. I now watch the tennis not only with the volume lowered, but in black and white just so I can concentrate on the game at hand…

  21. oldsalt

    Heartfelt agreement with all those condemning this revolting practice. It certainly robs me of the pleasure of watching these superb athletes doing battle under intense financial pressure. Surely network engineers could filter out the squeals while leaving in the occaisional genuine grunt, thwack of ball and squeal of sandshoe?

    I recall, as a youthful student of karate many years ago, a technique known then as ‘ki-ya’ where one delivered a shout at the same time as the strike. This was meant to both un-nerve your opponent and, more importantly, help you concentrate greater power into your blow. Perhaps someone actually expert in sports physiol. could enlighten us in this regard.

  22. blackdog

    This grunting, shrieking etc has only been part of the game the last few years hasn’t it? It is an obvious breaking of the rules, unbearable for spectators and should be banned. Some of these shrieks last until the opponent strikes the ball, this is ridiculous! I’m trying to think of sports where grunting helps physically and can’t think of any?? I know in some sports (like boxing which I have been involved with) a short release of air/sound helps boxer keep relaxed which helps the muscles work for longer) but I think this is more about the short release of air rather than the noise. Maintaining a shriek as long as Azarenka or Sharapova (I can’t stand watching either of them due to their shrieking)would surely take MORE effort rather than relaxing one? Might the whole ridiculous act turn into a karate display with the yelling before they hit the shot and yelling afterwards???

  23. blackdog

    aaaahhhhh, yaaarrrrr, hoooooaaaahhhhhh…

  24. Blaggers

    I hope I can enlighten. 

    Can we all agree that tennis has moved from a game of finesse to a game of power hitters? 

    Let’s take the most extreme case of a power sport we all know – weight lifting. Here it is almost expected that you grunt when lifting your body weight and then some over your head. Why do they do it? 

    Try it out yourself right now. Go on, give a little grunt. What happens? Do you feel your stomach muscles tighten briefly? 

    How about when you have that jar lid that just won’t open? Do you give a little grunt on the second or third attempt trying to get to your prize? Why do it? 

    To maximise your effort, that is to increase your power output, you need to employ more of your musculature. A Great deal of power is generated in the legs, and grunting helps to link in the abdominal chain and lower back. Yes, the arms swing the racquet and generate some power, but it is the lower chain that most power comes from. That’s why players set their stance in preparation for a return, or lifting extraordinary weights above your head, or when opening a stubborn lid on a jar, and the grunting helps to exert that little bit more power. Ever noticed how the grunt and power is lessened when chasing a return rather than coming from a set stance?

    I watched the women’s final, and you may be surprised that even Li Na grunts when hitting her more powerful shots. Nothing like the Azerenka blow your house down grunt but a grunt none the less. 

    One day, more skill may creep back into the game, but as it stands it’s a baseline duel to the death. A power hitters, and hence a grunters paradise. 

  25. mikeb

    Monica Seles was the first great grunter so it’s not a recent phenonema although it is much more common now. Azarenka is more a wail/screach so not sure if that counts as a grunt. As for adding power to a shot – well maybe for the real grunters, but I think it helps more with timing and mental composure than anything.

  26. blackdog

    blaggers, you sound a little convincing, except that you are forgetting two things.

    One is that the sound/out breath can become a habit solely to prevent competitors holding their breath (or breathing IN). In weight training, you ALWAYS breathe OUT while lifting the weight and IN when lowering the weight. Holding your breath is especially a no no even for injuries I think. Secondly, most sporting maneuvers have a particular chain of events where you require the muscles to tense and then relax in the best order for greatest efficiency/speed/power.

    I can easily use a boxing punch because I have been a professional fighter and also a qualified trainer and strength/conditioning trainer. The timing of when muscles are active enables greater speed at the point of impact…you will never throw a punch with as much power if your hand is clenched throughout the entire punch, as you will if you start at the floor with your feet, pivot through the action, engage your abs, then shoulder, then arms and lastly hand snapping to a clenched fist (not to mention the build-up of lactic acid in muscles that are engaged unnecessarily and for too long). Imagine throwing a ball, when do you engage what muscles and for how long?

    Secondly, in line with what I just mentioned, if you are constantly engaging you abs/pecs in with that prolonged grunt/scream…what does this do to your body? If Azarenka is still shrieking well after completing a tennis stroke, her abs are still engaged – how does this help her prepare her body for its next action? I would argue that it actually messes up her preparedness for another action.

    Funny that they are both (ie Azarenka/sharapova) both elite players of the game – I’d love to know how well they would do if they weren’t cheating!!


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