Tennis, The Grunting Game? The Wimbledon Championships began on Monday, and authorities are worried about safety — that is, the safety of the audience's ears subjected to the shrieks, screeches and grunts that tennis players release when playing hard and heavy on the court. ESPN analyst Luke Jensen, a 1993 French Open doubles champion, and USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan explain why some tennis officials say players' loud on-court grunts are a distraction to the sport.
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Tennis, The Grunting Game?

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Tennis, The Grunting Game?

Tennis, The Grunting Game?

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And finally, our tennis fans do not need to be told that the Wimbledon Championship started on Monday, and despite the aura of gentility that has long been maintained at the famed All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, officials from the Grand Slam Committee Will be meeting there next week, perhaps to make some noise about an increasingly controversial topic: grunting.

(Soundbite of shrieking)

MARTIN: Monica Seles was said to be the first women's tennis player to grunt, but these days grunts, are issued by Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. And let's not forget the men, Rafael Nadal, Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi have all been heard grunting from time to time. Now those fun-loving British tabloid reporters have gone so far as to measure the grunts with a sound level meter, after which they reported, according to Time Magazine, that some players are noisier than a police siren or a 747 taking off. But now, after a compliant by a player at the French Open in May, Grand Slam officials are meeting to see if tougher enforcement action is warranted.

To talk or perhaps groan about all this racket, we have invited two experts on the subject. Luke Jensen is an ESPN analyst, a 1993 French Open Doubles Champion, and now the head coach of Women's Tennis team at Syracuse University. He's with us from Syracuse. Also with us is Christine Brennan, a sports columnist for USA Today, a best-selling author, and a commentator for NPR, ABC, ESPN and FOX Sports Radio. She's here with me in Washington.

Welcome to you both.

Ms. CHRISTINE BRENNAN (Sports Columnist): Thank you.

Mr. LUKE JENSEN (ESPN Analyst): Thank you.

MARTIN: Luke, let me start with you. You were a professional player for many years. Were you a grunter?

Mr. JENSEN: You know, I wouldn't describe myself as a grunter. I played against guys, the Jimmy Connors, the Andre Agassis. A lot of guys used it back in the '80s to release tension and really let a lot of the emotion out, especially during big points. I think that's the core issue with a lot of players today.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you that do you get some physical benefit from grunting, or is it a psychological thing to psych out your opponent? I know in martial arts, for example, grunting is custom. In weightlifting, grunting is customary. So in tennis, do you get a benefit?

Mr. JENSEN: It's breathing out.


Mr. JENSEN: I believe you do. I believe you get, first, the physical benefit of letting everything you have - every fiber of your body and being hitting that ball and putting everything into that shot. And then, at Syracuse University, I had a player there that was so wound up with emotions that we encouraged the grunting, the groaning. And she actually does play better because of it.

MARTIN: Christine, what about you? You do play…

Ms. BRENNAN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …you know, nonprofessionally, of course, and you've been following the sport for many, many years. What's your take on grunting?

Ms. BRENNAN: You know, I - Luke is an expert on many things, and this included. I think it makes sense for the occasional exhalation of energy and breath and what have you. I think that - correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think that's really what we're talking about here. We are talking about an incessant, non-stop, active grunting that's almost a shrieking. And the fact that this has been going on now for a couple generations of women's tennis players - mostly women, some men, but mostly women - to the point where I think it really gets into the area of sportsmanship. Are you impacting your opponent's ability to play? It does make it less pleasant to watch, to observe, and since this is entertainment and it is also sport, I think you can ask the question and probably answer it by saying, yeah. It's time to, you know, crack down on this.

MARTIN: Why do you say it makes it less pleasant to watch? And I do have to ask the gender question, which is this does not comport with our concept of what women ought to be doing. I mean, in football, for example, sometimes they mic the helmets…

Ms. BRENNAN: Right.

MARTIN: …so you can hear the crunching…

Ms. BRENNAN: You know…

MARTIN: …and I don't hear anybody complaining about that. So…

Ms. BRENNAN: Well, you know, it's a great question. Different sports, I think, have different things. The decorum, for example, in golf, you know, how Tiger Woods or anyone, you know, backs away and looks at one shutter of a camera that would be lost in the shuffle at Yankee Stadium or at Fenway Park. I think with Wimbledon, frankly, for me, if it was a man doing this, I'd say the exact same thing. It just seems like we have had more teenagers - young women coming up doing this, from Sharapova, Seles - the kind of the grandmother of all shrieking - to Sharapova now to these other ones coming up. I think it's just become ingrained in the way they've been taught, and it's - I think it's time to stop it. A point or two penalty will probably take care of this every single time.

MARTIN: Luke, what's your take on this? And also, what's your take on why we're talking about it now?

Mr. JENSEN: Well, I think if you look at…

MARTIN: As I mentioned, at the French Open there was a complaint - a specific player a French player, Aravane Rezai…

Mr. JENSEN: Right.

MARTIN: …complained that her opponent, who's Portuguese, Michelle Larcher de Brito, was grunting so loud that it was distracting. The umpire asked Larcher de Brito to quiet down. She was not penalized, and Larcher de Brito did later win the match, but she was booed off the court by spectators. Of course, there could be some nationalism at work there because she defeated a French player at the French Open. So it could've been some of that.

Mr. JENSEN: The French - France at work. I think Christine hit on one key word: consistently doing it. If you listen and watch a Sharapova match, a Williams sisters match, it really gets key points when the tension is so very high and that pitch does go up. But in that case, at the French Open, you're talking about a player who's consistently doing it every single time. And when you get into arenas like Centre Court Wimbledon where the acoustics, you can hear a pin drop, it is so annoying that I really do believe that fans turn it off.

MARTIN: But I do want to ask Luke the gender question, though, since he has played professionally but does coach women now. Do you think there's a double standard for women? Is it women are expected to maintain a standard of behavior to which men are not held?

Mr. JENSEN: I want to say it's the pitch, because, you know, Nadal's doing his grunting and groaning and none of the guys have a problem with that. I don't even think about it when he's doing his thing. But when Sharapova does it, it is so loud. But I don't want to say it's a gender thing. I think it's an individual thing. Christine, what's your take on it?

MARTIN: What do you think?

Ms. BRENNAN: Well, I think you're making the right point. Grunting is part, I think, of the game. I think what we've gone to - as I said, it's gone to shrieking. And I think it seems that more women are doing it than men. And it's absolutely right I think for us to discuss this based on gender terms because it looks like we're focusing on the women here. I will sit here as a journalist who's covered this years saying we're close to the decibel level of a lion's roar here.

MARTIN: Really?

Ms. BRENNAN: A hundred ten is the decibel level for a lion's roar. Sharapova did 101, Seles 93.2, Serena Williams, 88.9. No man has been that high at the decibel level, believe it or not.

MARTIN: It's so unfair to ask a journalist to speculate, but what is your sense from your reporting of where they're headed?

Ms. BRENNAN: I think they're headed towards maybe coming up with a penalty. When you have people like Sue Barker, who is the voice of Wimbledon for the BBC saying that this is ridiculous and it must stop and you've got a place as staid as Wimbledon - and in this century, you know, we almost say, well, we throw tradition out the window. Not at Wimbledon. And as I said, a point or two - I don't know Luke, what you think - but a point or two penalty once to twice, I think that will stop it.

Mr. JENSEN: I believe something has to be done for the good of the, you know the viewing public. I mean, it is pretty rough when you have those decibels up there. So I think it can happen. I think it will happen.

MARTIN: I'm going just end by saying…

(Soundbite of grunt)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BRENNAN: That was a grunt. Not a shriek. You need to get much higher, Michel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, I don't want anybody to drive off the road.

Christine Brennan is a sports journalist and a best-selling author. She joined us here at our studio in Washington, D.C. Luke Jensen is coach of Women's Tennis at Syracuse University and a former professional tennis player. He spoke with us from Syracuse, New York.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. JENSEN: Thank you.

Ms. BRENNAN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Don't worry, I won't grunt again. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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