Grunting In Tennis

At a recent training camp during the 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,” who happened to be a highly ranked nine-year-old girl, “was grunting very loudly. We had to stop playing several times because it was distracting.” And then, she bragged about being a former “Alpha female athlete,” which to her, made her an expert on the subject of grunting. She 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.” And this is why: The group of ladies that she was playing with were constantly making loud remarks at the end of every point. Despite their distracting giggling, the gardener mowing the adjacent grass with heavy machinery, and 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 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. Any adult who can’t cope with a nine-year-old girl’s grunting has some issues – I recommend meditation or medication.

Looking back, I am glad this incident happened, and I’m thankful to the lady in the park for inspiring me to write about the controversial subject of grunting that 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 movements, and controlled slow breathing. The other is about combative maneuvers using explosive power, thus using the same form of exhaling which 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. Weight lifters, martial artists, boxers, fencers, track & field athletes, basketball and football players all grunt. Only tennis players get a bad rap for it.

All tennis professionals grunt. The only difference is the decibel level. Believe it or not, Roger Federer grunts too. By doing so, they can 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 without releasing 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 their abs. The second one occurs when hitting the ball and the athlete releases their 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. Even new generation players like Nadal, Djokovic, Serena, and Maria Sharapova, are well known for their signature grunts.

Apparently, all of 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.” These players have reached such an amazing level of excellence that no critic 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, but there is also 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 who grunt are more powerful, more confident, and more skilled. I’ve also noticed that they are less likely to get cramps, have more stamina and tend to have a higher ranking.

Here are some points to consider:
• 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.

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