Those who watch tennis know that the term “grunting” is a misnomer. The sound is more like a shriek. A battle cry.
Which is why female tennis players are getting criticized—once again—for making a racket on the court. It’s distracting for players, and annoying to spectators. And according to Ian Ritchie, the head of England’s Wimbledon tennis tournament, it’s ruining the game.
The 2011 Wimbledon Championships, held at London’s All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, started on Monday, and there’s already some noticeable uproar about Victoria Azarenka, the Belarus pro who wailed for a second and a half at 95 decibels during Monday’s match.
Over the past few years, grunting—the sound tennis players make when making a stroke—has become an increasingly amusing yet problematic component of the sport. The grunts are more frequent, and louder and longer than ever before.
In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Ritchie says tournament officials are feeling uneasy about the high-pitched trend. Officials “prefer to see less grunting,” he told the British newspaper. Richie also blamed younger players with an “education problem” for the grunting spike.
Notorious grunters include Monica Sales and Maria Sharapova, the loudest known grunter to date (she hit 105 decibels on a sound monitor in 2009). In 1974, Jimmy Connors grunted his way to a Wimbledon title; years later, the on-court howls of his younger counterpart, Andre Agassi, would also become cemented in tennis grunting lore. Serena and Venus Williams also grunt.
Grunting poses a problem for the overall image of the sport. The Wimbledon is especially hailed for its air of athletic dignity: the prestigious reputation, grass court, royal patronage and white uniforms. Then the matches begin, and millions are subjected to listening to the shrill, animal-like screams that inspire confusion, frustration and snickers throughout the world.
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But the debate over grunting isn’t just about tarnishing the game’s image. Grunters have been accused of doing it intentionally to distract and edge out their opponents. Others have proposed a grunting ban.
In 2009, tennis darling Martina Navratilova spoke out against grunting, saying it “has reached an unacceptable level. It is cheating, pure and simple. It is time for something to be done.” Former Wimbledon champ Michael Stich once said the ladies of Wimbledon are “just there to sell sex,” which is why they should stop grunting.
Of course, grunters defend the right to rip their vocal cords with abandon. “I can’t change it, it’s part of my breathing system and it’s just natural and something I’ve done since I was a kid,” Azarenka recently told Reuters. “Grunting is part of the game.”