The Tennis Curmudgeon

Enough With The Grunting

I’m not a prude. I don’t want tennis to go back to a time when the only sound heard during a match was the tinkling of ice in highball glasses. But, let’s be honest, hitting a tennis ball isn’t the most strenuous activity on earth. Even in the realm of sports. So why does hitting a fuzzy round yellow thing merit the same amount of audio eruption as someone lifting a giant round rock onto a pillar? It shouldn’t. Plain and simple.

I’m not even condemning the occasional ‘eragh’ that may arrive when stretching for a difficult ball. Who hasn’t done that? But when you’re standing on the baseline in the middle of the court and you’re hitting a mundane forehand in the middle of a routine rally and you roar with the power and longevity of a passenger jet taking off something’s wrong.

It’s not new and some would say I should get over it. Like people in the front row of sporting events who do nothing all game but look at their smart phones, it’s here to stay. Maybe but that doesn’t mean it’s right. We’ve all swung a tennis racket. Have you done it quietly? If yes that means you can do it 99.999% of the time silently. As I said, I’m not even against the occasional ‘eragh’ it’s the constant ‘eraghhhhhhhhhhhhhhh’ we’re really targeting.

The contact time of a ball on your racket, the most strenuous time of the stroke, I hope we can all agree, is measured in milliseconds. Even taking into consideration that we, as humans, exaggerate our suffering, an ‘eragh’ could last upwards to a second to cover the most strenuous time of the stroke. What’s with the other four to six seconds this grunt carries on?

If your opponent is hitting the ball and your grunt isn’t over yet, that’s too much. If hitting a tennis ball is so strenuous to you, please, put down the racket and pick up the knitting needle. I’ve played most sports and most of the time when sounds left my body was when someone was crashing into me. Even then the only person who heard it was the guy crushing my face against a surface. I’ve had football helmets into my chest and exhaled all the air that was in my lungs. And still didn’t make as much noise or for the duration of one person hitting a backhand down the line.

Attempting to hit a ball in any sport is an effort. So why don’t we hear grunts in basketball during a three point shot? Torturous wails when a home run hitter connects with a dinger? A perilous cry when a golfer tees off? They’re all an effort so what makes hitting a tennis ball so difficult it must be followed with a sound so distressful?

When I played at a high level I relied on the sound of the ball on the racket to give me a clue as to what type of shot I would be returning (or not, you know how this game is). If I had someone bellowing over every shot they hit that would take an offensive weapon away from me. The pop of a flat ball; the softer brushing of a topspin; the harder slip of a slice. And sound is even more important during the time the grunting is on penultimate display: while serving.

Sure, you can argue that it doesn’t really matter, you still have to return the ball you’ve been hit. But, just like the choice of rackets, strings, grips, clothes, surfaces, it’s part of your arsenal. You’ve hit thousands of balls in the hope you’ll learn how to react to every situation that can happen on a court. You study your opponents footwork, how they serve in a certain situation, down to how you can get in their head if you hit six straight backhands to them. So are you willing to ignore the fact that sound on the court is as necessary as knowing how to react to a forehand down the line?

Why do you think the Seattle Seahawks fans are so loud and why the stadium was built with that noise in mind? They know disrupting the sound of the game is a factor. It’s barely different from someone grunting during and after their stroke.

It bugs me when I’m watching tennis on television and a non or casual fan walks in and hears the grunting. To a person they ask what that horrible sound is. Is that conducive to attracting more fans or players? I don’t think so. I know I’ve dealt with this subject before, hopefully more humorously, but it came to head for me on the court the other day.

A little kid, six or seven, was being fed balls by her father. It’s a scene we’ve witnessed thousands of times on countless tennis courts. The budding of a new potential player. But what caused my attention was not her flawless strokes (she looked like a baby duck trying to fly from the pond the first time) it was the fact that every time she shanked a ball into the bottom of the net or flayed it into the court beside her she let go with an unworldly howl.

Is the next generation of players also going to need a vocal coach on their retinue? I sure hope not. I don’t want to have to start packing ear protection in my bag.


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