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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 comments

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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.