Women's tennis battles 'grunt work'

How can a sport that has permitted such sounds now squelch them?

Updated: July 1, 2012, 10:46 AM ET
By William Weinbaum | ESPN

WIMBLEDON, England -- The grounds here resound with history, tradition and records. But this Wimbledon is the 50th anniversary of an episode about which few people have heard a peep.

When 17-year-old Victoria Palmer of Arizona came to play her first Wimbledon in 1962, she was already an accomplished player and distinctive among her peers for her loud grunting. Known by her married name for the past 48 years, Victoria Heinicke said by phone last week she was "one of the first true grunters" (some say she was the first) and that at the '62 event, unlike others, a fellow competitor lodged a complaint.

Heinicke declined to name the complainant, just as she did when interviewed by Slate.com last year, but she said it was an act of "gamesmanship" from someone she'd played against for "many years." Before the tournament, according to Heinicke, the player asked Wimbledon officials to order her to stop grunting, even though the draw made it a longshot that they would have to face each other.

"The tournament officials talked to my mother, who told me," Heinicke said, adding that her mother was told no warning would be issued and no action would be taken. "If they told me I couldn't grunt, I couldn't have played, bottom line.

"I was never taught to grunt, it was something I did naturally on every point."


Similar assertions from present-day WTA Tour players are the crux of a conundrum confronting tennis. How can a sport that has permitted such sounds, match after match, year after year, change course and strive to squelch them?

[+] EnlargeCaroline Wozniacki
Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty ImagesFormer No. 1-ranked Caroline Wozniacki has openly complained about grunting.

For years during the Wimbledon fortnights, area tabloids have measured and mocked the grunts, screams and shrieks, from little-known players like Portugal's Michelle Larcher de Brito to leading lights like Monica Seles, Venus and Serena Williams and this year's top two seeds, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, winners of the year's first two majors. And last year, the chief executive of the All England Lawn and Tennis Club, which hosts Wimbledon, told the Daily Telegraph newspaper that many tennis enthusiasts and club officials were unhappy with the noise and that he hoped something would be done to curb the cacophony.

Ridiculing of grunting abounds on the Internet and in pop culture, as in scenes from a 2002 "Curb Your Enthusiasm" episode and a "Keeping Up With The Kardashians" show this month, both available on YouTube, and in numerous notable on-court examples.

Although men from Jimmy Connors to Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have also been high-profile, high-volume grunters, only the women seem to draw much ire. "I do think that this issue is a bit unfair to the women," Stacey Allaster, Women's Tennis Association chief executive officer, told "Outside the Lines" recently. "But obviously our DNA is different -- men have deeper voices; we were blessed with a higher pitch."

Citing increasing discontent from fans, Allaster said the WTA plans to launch an initiative in conjunction with the International Tennis Federation and the Grand Slam Committee -- timetable to be determined -- to teach young players breathing techniques to avoid grunting and to eventually adopt a rule against noises deemed too loud, with the help of a decibel meter to be designed for use by chair umpires.

The plan is to "eliminate excessive grunting for the next generation," Allaster said, "but [we're] doing it in such a manner that it does not drive out our current players who have trained their entire lives the way they play today."

"Why wait that long -- what's the next generation, five years from now, 10 years from now?" said Martina Navratilova, winner of 18 major singles titles and long a vocal critic of grunting.

It has been 20 years since Navratilova complained to the chair umpire about Seles' grunting in their Wimbledon semifinal match, won by the top-ranked Seles. The first famous grunter in women's tennis, Seles tried to stay quiet in the final. Steffi Graf won in a rout, and Seles said years later that her noise suppression that day was among her biggest regrets.

Navratilova, in a recent interview with "Outside the Lines," suggested that players be given a one-year warning before enactment of a rule assessing penalties for excessive noise. "You get used to it … champions adjust."

Sports psychologist Rick Jensen, a WTA player development consultant for 15 years, said, "I don't think you can put a timeframe on it." The repetitive act of grunting, he said, becomes part of a larger repeated motor sequence, like other links in a chain such as how a player approaches the ball, turns and strikes it.

"The more and more you do something, the more automated it becomes," said Jensen, who added that an effort to undo the habit could be "extremely disruptive and most certainly would negatively affect the player's performance." Jensen also said players' highly intense matches contribute to how ingrained the habit is, making it even harder to bring an end to it.

Thomas Murry, professor of speech-language pathology in Cornell University's Weill Medical College Department of Otolaryngology, said there is no need for the grunt, but that eliminating the habit "would take quite a bit of practice." With time, he said, it "should have no effect" on the player and could help avoid vocal strain, as "a loud grunt like they do cannot be too healthy for the voice."

According to certified athletic trainer Ralph Reiff, grunting is used by players as "sort of a mental cue" to follow through in the process of bearing down and activating the body's core muscles, and when players go through with hitting a shot, it becomes part of a comfort level and aid in dealing with performance anxiety.

"I think grunting is irrelevant to proper breathing," said Reiff, executive director of sports medicine and sports performance at St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital.

"I have not found in my 32 years anybody who says grunting or not grunting has an empirically positive or negative effect on performance -- it's all about belief system."

Nick Bollettieri, who coached Seles, the Williams sisters, Sharapova and Larcher de Brito, told "Outside the Lines" last month his belief has always been that grunting is nothing notable, let alone a negative, but that amid widespread dismay over the noise, he met with Allaster this winter and endorsed an approach that "grandfathers in" current pros and focuses on ensuring that budding ones break or don't develop the habit.

[+] EnlargeNick Bollettieri
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesNick Bollettieri, who coached Monica Seles, the Williams Sisters and Maria Sharapova has endorsed an approach that "grandfathers in" current pros and focuses on ensuring that young player break or don't develop the habit.

Now his students at the IMG Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Fla., are being taught breathing techniques with lessons on the topic of "breathing versus grunting in tennis," a plan devised by Angus Mugford, IMG Academy's director of mental conditioning. Mugford's presentation acknowledges grunting as "unsportsmanlike" and a distraction to opponents that causes inability to hear the impact of the racket, slowing opponent response time and increasing opponent "decision error."

A joint study two years ago by the University of British Columbia and the University of Hawaii supported a contention by Navratilova that opponents of grunters are at a disadvantage because they're hindered in reacting to shots.

Bollettieri maintains that if it were a big factor, more players would register complaints during matches, as Navratilova did in 1992. She, in turn, said, "I think it's really unfair for the other player to have to say something." ITF Rule 26 on "Hindrance," which makes no specific reference to noise or level and covers only "deliberate" acts, doesn't lend itself to clarity or consistency.


Among current pros -- grunters and their across-the-court foes -- this is rarely a laughing matter. When opponents are asked about it by the media, many demur, some shrug and occasionally a top player -- Agnieszka Radwanska, Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic, to name three -- publicly decries the practice as annoying or worse.

When those who make the noise are asked about it, they usually bristle and become defensive. But in the case of the Williams sisters, both have said with aplomb in interviews over the years that as aspiring stars they emulated Seles' game and her grunts, and Serena had a rollicking 2009 "Late Show" exchange on the subject with David Letterman, memorable for the laughing from interviewer and interviewee and also available on YouTube.

Their father, Richard, said here this week that he thinks the sport "should just leave the issue alone," adding that "tennis is too quiet."

Allaster met with the WTA Players Council on Saturday and the proposed grunting initiative was on the agenda. A WTA spokesman said the group, which included the Williams sisters and Wozniacki, approved of the plan that targets junior players.

Through her agent, Venus Williams said that from her perspective, grunting has never been an issue, but "with the increased feedback from fans, it is important that we are responsive and thinking through solutions to address the concerns. I of course support the leaders in the sport of tennis as they develop this strategy."

After defeating Tsvetana Pironkova on Thursday, Sharapova, the top-ranked player in the world, was asked if there is something she can do to her technique to reduce the noise she makes, and replied, "certainly not now, not since I've been doing it since I was 4 years old. It's definitely tough and impossible to do when you've played this sport for over 20 years."

Sharapova added that she's had numerous conversations with Allaster and is "really happy with the system that she put forth [focusing on junior players]." "I think it's extremely smart," Sharapova said.

The comments came one day after Sabine Lisicki complained twice to the chair umpire that opponent Bojana Jovanovski's grunts were so loud that they created a hindrance. No penalties were assessed against Jovanovski, and Lisicki won the match in three sets.


Navratilova expressed skepticism over just how difficult it would be for players who tried to keep the racket down, so to speak. She equated such an adaptation to a total makeover she made of her footwork at age 32, after she had won eight Wimbledons and before she won a ninth.

[+] EnlargeMonica Seles
Jean-Loup Gautreau/AFP/Getty ImagesMonica Seles defeated Martina Navratilova in this women's semifinal at Wimbledon on July 2, 1992, after Navratilova complained to the chair umpire about Seles' grunting.

"That's not an apples to apples comparison," Jensen said.

"She's changing the footwork for the better, so there's added incentive -- it's not the same change process if you're removing grunting, that's a negative, not a positive."

Dr. Phillip Muskin, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, said, "Players will change if they want to, but it may not be easy for some, thus we should be compassionate about that fact." He said, though, that he identifies with disgruntled fans who pay the bills and he agrees with Navratilova that "grandfathering" should have limits, but that two years would likely be better than one.

Motivation and time are the two biggest issues, said Loren Seagrave, director of speed and movement at the IMG Academy.

"If a player is committed to reduce the amount of noise that comes out after delivering a maximum intensity shot, it would be pretty easy if the player really buys in to be able to change just a few things," Seagrave said.

"The problem with elite tennis players is that they're always playing matches -- it's hard to get them in a block of time when they don't have to be at their best and in what we call the 'unconscious competence phase of performance,' to be able to do things without thinking … this takes a period which most tennis players don't really have but maybe once a year."


Victoria Heinicke said today's grunts seem louder than hers half a century ago, and that she detects another difference.

"When I grunted, as far as I knew, it was when I hit the ball -- now it is long, not just hitting the ball."

That doesn't mean that Heinicke proposes any mandate to achieve more quiet on the court from current players. "If you have to learn a totally different way, that's asking a lot."

After a bye and two victories at Wimbledon in 1962, Heinicke lost in the round of 16. She said the player who complained about her grunting advanced even deeper into the tournament.

In 1964, at Heinicke's only other Wimbledon, she received a first-round bye before losing in the second round. While she was loud on-court, she was apparently quite adept at keeping something else quiet at that time.

Heinicke says she had eloped that January and was 4½ months pregnant when Trudy Groenman beat her in three sets. Her dressmaker, the legendary Ted Tinling, knew the situation and was kept busy, she says, but she didn't announce her marriage or that she was expecting a baby until she got home from Wimbledon.

William Weinbaum is an ESPN producer and worked with correspondent Kelly Naqi, coordinating producer Tim Hays, associate producer Michael Sciallo and production assistants Jenna Shulman and Dominique Ponticiello-Collins on the "Grunt Work" TV report to air on "Outside the Lines," Sunday at 9 a.m. ET on ESPN and 10 a.m. ET on ESPN2.