Advantage tennis grunters " it's a fact

‘Extraneous sound' reduces your opponent's on-court reaction time, a new study says, reigniting the debate over whether grunting in tennis is cheating

It’s loud, annoying, and in the eyes of many borders on cheating – and now scientists have found that grunting can give players a genuine advantage over their opponents.

Recent research has proven that noise "distracts you from your ability to pay attention to what is going on," leading to slower and less accurate responses from opponents when a player grunts as they hit the ball.

Researchers played 384 video clips of a tennis player hitting a ball to either the left or right of a video camera to 33 students at the University of British Columbia in Canada. The students were asked to quickly determine which side the ball had been hit. For some of the shots, a loud white noise was played as the racket hit the ball.

"The findings were unequivocal," says Scott Sinnett, the study's lead author. "When the video clips did have a grunt, the participants were not only slower to react but they had lower accuracy levels. So they were basically slower and could actually be wrong-footed, if you could extend that to a real-world tennis court.

The report said the grunt could also hamper a receiver who was trying to judge the spin and speed of a ball from the sound made off the racket.

"Our findings suggest that a tennis ball travelling 50 miles per hour could appear two feet closer to the opponent than it actually is," reveals Sinnett. "This could increase the likelihood that opponents are out of position and make it more difficult returning the ball more difficult."

The results add fuel to the debate that grunting gives players like Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and Rafael Nadal an unfair advantage on court.

"A lot of people have complained about grunting in the tennis world, that it's distracting, and even some professionals have said it's pretty much cheating," say Sinnett. "The study raises a number of interesting questions for tennis. For example, if Rafael Nadal is grunting and Roger Federer is not, is that fair?"

Not everybody agrees with that sentiment. "Players grunt because it helps them release energy and keep focused," says Nick Bollettieri, coach to some notable grunting successes over the years including Sharapova, Monica Seles and the Williams sisters. However, he insists he does not encourage the practice. "It is something that they do naturally...[not] deliberately to hurt their opponents."

An umpire can award a point against a grunting player if the noise has hindered their opponent. But while the ITF considers tougher "noise hindrance" measures that could see excessive grunters receive code violations that could cost them a game or even the match, few officials intervene mid-match.

Maria Sharapova is the poster-girl for grunters everywhere. Her shrieks have hit 101 decibels – a lion's roar is 110 – while Serena Williams’ grunts have measured 88.9 decibels in the past. Like Azarenka, Portugal's Michelle Larcher de Brito emits a high-pitched, prolonged wail. Nadal is often mentioned among the men, while Andre Agassi was an early offender – “the noise threw my mental game,” complained Ivan Lendl at the 1988 US Open, despite beating the American.

Posted by: tennishead magazine

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