The 18-year-old Monica Seles came to London in 1992 as world No1 and bidding for a career Grand Slam. She faced, in the semi-finals, a 35-year-old Martina Navratilova aiming to win her 10th Wimbledon title. It was a contest that proved dramatic in all sorts of ways.
Seles had swept effortlessly through the draw but her progress was accompanied by a growing buzz of discontent. Some opponents began to complain about the noise that accompanied her powerful tennis: a grunt of exertion that grew in proportion to the pace of her shots.
As the three-set semi-final unfolded, Navratilova added her voice to the complaints. Seles tried to tone things down, but the tighter the match became, the more Seles’ grunts crescendoed into roars.
Seles won, but the volume of her win became as much a topic for headlines as her precocious talent. Come the final against Steffi Graf, she all but banished her grunts and won just three games, and despite afterwards saying that her reduced noise had nothing to do with the loss, many did not agree.
Seles went on to win the US Open but her chance of either a career or a calendar Slam were gone, and would never be repeated after a court-side stabbing the following spring wrecked her tennis career.
Fast forward to 2011, and once again that most traditional and hushed of tennis tournaments became the centre for renewed debate about the noise of women players.
The then chief executive of the All England Club, Ian Ritchie, revealed that spectators had started to complain and that: “We have discussed it with the tours and we believe it is helpful to reduce the amount of grunting.” He added: “If one player is grunting too much and the other player doesn’t like it, they can complain to the umpire.”
According to Stacey Allaster, chief executive of the WTA, however, few do: “I’ve not had one player come to me to complain about it. It’s not bothering the athletes. And we have a hindrance rule in place.”
The ‘hindrance’ rule brought about another spike in this high-decibel story. During the US Open women’s final against a silent Sam Stosur, another regular grunter, Serena Williams, was deducted a point for roaring ‘come on’ as she hit a huge forehand onto her opponent’s sideline. The umpire applied the strictest interpretation of the rule: “[When] a player is hindered in playing the point by a deliberate act of the opponent, the player shall win the point.”
The call was controversial for asserting that Williams’ shout was ‘deliberate’ rather than ‘unintentional’, which would only have required the point to be replayed. Is it, in fact, possible for a player brought up to play vocal tennis to turn off their habit?
The latest Grand Slam champion, crowned this week in Australia, is adamant that she cannot and will not.
Azarenka, who regularly endures mocking echoed squeals from the crowd, repelled the usual questions: “It’s the way I am, the way I play, the way I used to play when I was a kid.” She added: “I think it’s the way that made me breathe, made me move. It’s part of my movement. As a child I was really weak, so I had to give that little extra power there. It kind of stuck with me, so that’s it.”
Several respected voices nevertheless question the necessity of such a grunt. At an ITF award ceremony ahead of the 2009 Wimbledon, Navratilova said: “I think we can all agree that the grunting/screeching/screaming needs to come to an end – it is annoying, it can be a hindrance and most of all it is completely unnecessary. If it was necessary, everybody would be doing it.”
Chris Evert was reported by the Press Association as saying: “I don’t know how you measure it or what you do but as a player—and I was known for my concentration—it is distracting. They say you’ve got to blow air out before you hit the ball and I’m thinking, well, Steffi Graf hit the ball a ton and she didn’t grunt.”
And the criticism is not just the from the ‘old school’. Caroline Wozniacki, only recently deposed as world No1, added fuel to the debate at the WTA Championships last October: “I think there are some players who do it on purpose. They don’t do it in practice and then they come into the match and they grunt. I think they [officials] could definitely cut it.”
There is, though, evidence to support Azarenka’s assertion, some of it from the Nick Bollettieri’s Tennis Academy in Florida, where both Seles and Sharapova trained.
Bollettieri has quelled suggestions that his charges had been coached to grunt. In The Sunday Times, he said: “My staff and I have never taught grunting. We have always taught the proper way to breathe in and out. Players grunt because it helps them release energy and keep focused.”
It’s a line that was reiterated in a memo from the Academy entitled Breathing vs Grunting in Tennis, which draws a distinction between the benefit of optimal breathing and the hindrance of ‘over exertion’.
Now, research from Brunel University in London has given new scientific backing to the techniques of forceful breathing.
Professor of Applied Physiology Alison McConnell suggests in her book, Breathe Strong, Perform Better, that there is a physiological reason for a tennis player to grunt.
She explains: “Maximising the power of a tennis shot is created by transferring muscular force to the racket head efficiently. A strong core and trunk is vital for this process. The muscles in the trunk also contribute to racket head speed by providing a rotational force between the hips and shoulders.”
So how does this cause a player to grunt as they strike the ball? According to Professor McConnell it all comes down to breathing techniques.
“We all instinctively inhale just before we make a physical effort such as lifting furniture or swinging a racket at a ball. We do this because holding air in the lungs helps to provide the stability required for injury-free and forceful movements of the trunk.
“Efficient breathing is an incredibly important contributor to performance in all sports, but especially in a high-intensity, skill-based game like tennis. Any coach will tell you that the heart of a good stroke is a relaxed rhythm, and part of achieving this rhythm is getting your breathing and stroke in tune.”
Simply exhaling as soon as the player has hit the ball will dissipate the stability in their core and this can throw them off balance and break that all-important rhythm. The solution is controlled, forceful exhalation.
“Narrowing the opening of your lungs will slow down the rate of airflow from them, while maintaining stiffness in the trunk and control over the breathing rhythm. It is in using this technique that some players feel the need to grunt.”
She goes on to suggest that the reason grunting is more common amongst women than men is that their upper bodies are generally weaker and thus require stronger control and stability.
“Of course this doesn’t actually need to result in audible grunting but it is easier to coach the controlled exhalation if you can hear it. As a result some younger players may well be taught to grunt as a means of breath control.”
The question remains, however, whether “audible exhalation” has to be so loud, and here there appears to be room for change. Allaster confirmed that the WTA was beginning the process by visiting the Bollettieri Academy to “meet with coaches and young players – it just comes down to education.”
A WTA statement elaborated: “We are currently in the process of exploring how to reduce excessive grunting, especially for younger players just starting out, without adversely affecting players who have developed their game under the current training, rules and procedures.”
There appears to be growing support amongst some of the players for this action, too—Svetlana Kuznetsova and Jelena Jankovic amongst them. Another, Agnieszka Radwanska, drew Sharapova’s scorn after their match in Melbourne by saying: “Of course everybody can make some noise. This is tennis. It’s really hard work. But I don’t think it’s very necessary to scream that loud.”
In the meantime, she, her fellow players and tennis fans will just have to put up with it—or wear ear plugs—because Sharapova, like Azarenka, has no intention of changing: “You’ve watched me grow up, you’ve watched me play tennis. I’ve been the same over the course of my career. No one important enough has told me to change or do something different.”
Professor Alison McConnell’s book is accompanied by the Breathestrong website about breathing training.