Noise abatement on the Grand Slam agenda.

_sharapova_80228Grunting can be annoying to opponents (and fans), and occasionally umpires will tell players to pipe down. But beyond any psychological disadvantage it might cause an opponent, does grunting physically help a player make better or stronger shots?

“Performance and power is a lot of things,” said Michael F. Bergeron, a physiologist and assistant professor at the Medical College of Georgia, “including timing of motor patterns and contraction of muscles.”

If grunting contributes to getting that timing right, Dr. Bergeron said, “maybe there is an advantage.”

Other theories abound: it helps the player concentrate; the sharp exhalation creates a recoil effect, leading to a bigger inhalation and thus more oxygen to the blood; the noise masks the sound of ball hitting racket, making it harder to judge the strength of the shot. But Dr. Bergeron said no one really knows if grunting helps.

The subject has been studied scientifically, though not with tennis players. In the 1990’s, Dennis G. O’Connell, a professor of physical therapy at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Tex., and colleagues researched the effect of what they called “vocal disinhibition” on weight lifters.

Dr. O’Connell said that weight lifters produced about 2 percent more force when they grunted. By statistical measures the effect was judged insignificant. Still, he said, “I don’t think I’d ever tell somebody not to grunt.”

When Martina Navratilova speaks, the tennis world pays attention. Or it should. For when the winner of 18 grand-slam singles titles and an Open era record 167 in all uses one of the most significant platforms in the sport to rail against the din made by play-ers in today’s women’s game, the controversy takes on a whole new dimension.

The receipt of the ITF’s Philippe Chatrier Award – its annual recognition of incomparable service to the game – at its world champions’ dinner was the vehicle for Navratilova to speak directly to the game’s leaders. The two-time French Open champion made critical reference to the assault on the eardrums led here this year by Michelle Larcher De Brito, the 16-year-old Portuguese, Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. She did not name players individually but they know who they are.

“Roger Federer doesn’t make a noise when he hits the ball – go and listen,” Navratilova said yesterday. “The grunting has reached an unacceptable level. It is cheating, pure and simple. It is time for something to be done.”

Among other concerns she believes tennis needs to deal with are constant delays of a game because of incessant bouncing of the ball in the service preparation – “it is just too much,” she said – and the size of the racket heads and improvements in string technology that are ridding the game of its variety.

But it was the racket of a different sort that really perturbed Navratilova, commentating here for The Tennis Channel.

“I remember how it was when Monica [Seles] and I were competitors and she began to grunt,” she said. “I couldn’t hear the ball. I thought to myself, ‘Do I mention it to the umpire, do I say something to her? What should I do?’ And Monica was a friend. I had to say something in the end.

“A player is in a difficult position because if they make too much of a fuss, the crowd can turn against them. It is the umpires who have to act because if they start enforcing the hindrance rule and give point penalties, it will soon stop. The grunts are louder and lasting well into the opponent’s strike zone.”

Navratilova said yesterday that no one in tennis authority had spoken to her after her speech about either its content or its significance, which is a worry, because her views ought to be roundly supported and acted upon without delay.

The grand slam committee is scheduled to meet in Paris today and players’ noise levels are believed to be on their agenda.

The loss of Williams to the competition yesterday – she was beaten 7-6, 5-7, 7-5 by Svetlana Kuznetsova, of Russia, sacrificing a 3-1 lead in the final set in the process – has reduced the decibel count propitiously.

“Maybe I can do better at Wimbledon,” Williams said. “I wish it was tomorrow.”


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