THE SPORTS DOCTOR- Piggies or players? Grunts give the ladies an advantage

Anna Kournikova, who played at Boyd Tinsley's tourney in 2003, registers a relatively mild 78.5 decibels.

Once upon a time, I was friendly with several female Olympic weightlifters. Not only did their size and strength daunt me, but the noise they made! Their practice facility reeked of more than perspiration: the din was audible for almost a square mile. But it wasn't the clanging of weights that was most disturbing; it was the grunting.

If a person is lifting 50, 100, or 200 pounds, grunting is totally forgivable. In fact, a silent dead lift would be a little creepy. But as in all things, there's a time and a place. A grunt may be fine at the feed store, but on the tennis court, it's not only inappropriate, it's cheating.

That's right– the grunts and groans and screams spewed from the pretty mouths of Maria Sharapova, Michelle Larcher de Brito, Dinara Safina, and a whole host of others is nothing but a low-down dirty ploy intended to distract and intimidate. Long recognized as terribly annoying, the grunting phenomenon has now gotten totally out of hand.

Remember Monica Seles? She used to be the grunt champion of the tennis world. Her multi-syllabic expulsions registered 93.2 decibels, about the level of a diesel train. Seventeen years ago, the tabloids aptly dubbed her "Moan-ica."

When Larcher de Brito's emanations registered a whopping 109 decibels at this year's French Open, the tabloids dubbed her "the tennis banshee," a rather generous nickname for the Portuguese teenager. That many decibels is louder than a 747 takeoff, and even drowns out Sharapova's 101-decibel roar, which is only as loud as a police siren. 

Frankly, the problem isn't the girls— they're taught from a young age that grunting is okay, no matter how loud. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the three loudest grunters in tennis history– Larcher de Brito, "Shriek-opova," and Seles– all share the same coach, Nick Bollettieri, who vehemently denies he teaches his students to grunt. 

"My staff and I have never taught grunting. We have always taught the proper way to breathe in and out," Bollettieri told The Sunday Times after spectators booed Larcher de Brito at Roland Garros. However, Bollettieri told The Daily Telegraph, "If young players grunt, I definitely will not discourage it, because this is how they relax... it has helped them all become great players and champions."

Well sure– that's the point. At a 2004 tournament, Sharapova's shrieks were so loud that competitors complained from four courts away. As an opponent, tennis legend Chris Evert, told ESPN, "That's the first thing you hear– and you're kind of like thrown off guard as a player– and then before you know it, the ball gets past you."

Bollettieri claims grunting isn't cheating, and his students chant the same mantra. "I don't think I'm going to win a match because I'm grunting," Seles told reporters back in the early ‘90s. But where the rubber meets the road, there's no doubt players, females especially, are using grunts to further their game, either to intimidate and distract their opponents or for a much more sinister reason.

Martina Navratilova, winner of 18 grand slams, calls grunting "cheating, pure and simple." The grunting noise masks the sound of the racket hitting the ball, a real impediment to world-class players, who often can determine how a ball was struck by that sound.

Back at Wimbledon in 1992, Seles' opponents complained about just that. Late in her quarterfinal match, players began "charging that the formidable Seles' most effective weapon is not her racquet but her racket," according to Time magazine. Nathalie Tauziat and Navratilova both complained that Seles' screaming was so loud they could not hear the ball coming off her racquet.

And it got worse. After Seles' bold statement, the 1992 French Open winner ate some humble pie when opponent Steffi Graf complained when the two met in the Wimbledon final. Forced to curtail her grunts or forfeit the match, Seles lost in straight sets, 6-2, 6-1.

Wimbledon officials claim they're going to crack down on the grunts, but nothing has happened so far. As a matter of fact, it's getting worse. On Monday, June 29, for the first time ever, Wimbledon rolled out its new roof for a match. The reverberations off the roof were deafening, and I don't mean the sound of the ball. Darina Safina, one of Bollettieri's students, was playing, and one would have thought Armageddon had come. 

For these loud and lusty "ladies" and those forced to play them, it can't come soon enough.