The Tennis Player’s grunt

The Tennis Player’s grunt


More by lucky accident than design, I was present at the quarter final of the Women’s Doubles at Wimbledon with Lisicki and Stosur against Petrova and Rodionova. It was full on play from the start with both sides playing well together.

With one set all there was a distinct sound change from Lisicki, who was the most vocal of the players. Lisicki’s sighs when exhaling and hitting the ball (rather like the sound of wind in leafless trees), became stronger and more forceful, like the sound of the last of a sink full of water being emptied into the drain.

Petrova on the other hand started emitting little glottal bursts of uh-huhs when serving.

It was a close match until the second game of the third set when Lisicki was heard to be a clear winner on sound.

The Brunel University’s Centre for sports’ medicines and human performance, has researched into the connection between voice and physical strength. This research makes interesting reading for anyone involved in voice production. When we are breathing to live – as we do – breath flows freely through the voicebox.

Professor Alison McConnell of Brunel University says: “We all instinctively inhale before we make a physical effort such as lifting furniture or swinging a racquet at a ball. We do this because holding air in the lungs helps to provide the stability required for injury-free forceful movements of the trunk. Maximising the power of a tennis shot is created by transferring muscular force to the racquet head efficiently. A strong core and trunk is vital for this process because the force transmission starts below the players’ waist.”

Tennis coaches are teaching their players to breathe out through a “controlled, forceful exhalation using the larynx or voicebox. This produces a braking action in the breath which is stored in the upper torso. In using this technique the braking action doesn’t require an audible grunt but it’s easier to coach if you can hear it. The audible grunt is more common among women because women’s upper bodies are generally weaker than men’s and require stronger control and stability through breathing techniques”.

Good tennis strokes are achieved therefore by getting the breath and the action of the stroke, in tune. The sound produced is not a pleasant one. Monica Seles lost against Steffi Graf after she was ordered to keep the volume down. Serena Williams produces a grunt that clocks 90 decibels. Are the directors at Wimbledon Tennis Club considering handing out earplugs this year?

Professor Alison McConnell’s book is out now: