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Why Do Tennis Players Grunt?

There’s a whole lot of grunting going on here. I’m catching a couple of first-round matches at the Credit One Charleston Open WTA 500 event. While not the biggest women’s tennis tournament on the tour, it’s got a million-dollar prize package, and the conditions are glorious — Charleston, SC, in the spring couldn’t be nicer. While watching the first-round play between Danielle Collins and Paula Badosa, I couldn’t help but wonder why so many tennis players grunt when they strike the ball? Danielle and Paula let the screams and groans fly consistently, as did most other players throughout the day. As if tennis wasn’t unusual enough with the scoring, now we have to explore the reasons behind animalistic rituals.

Tennis Players Grunt for Relaxation

It’s no secret that top athletes play at their peak when their bodies and minds are relaxed. When their mind is Zen, and they’re not focused on the outcome, but instead on the moment, they perform at a higher level. That’s a difficult state to achieve when the stakes and pressures are high, hence the reason leading sports psychologists get paid the big bucks. Just ask any top professional athlete to show you those canceled checks.

A power grunt forces air out of the body, potentially releasing muscle tension. Some players report that their primal exhalations help keep them on an even “stress level” during a match.

Mind Games?

Watch any Hollywood action hero flick and there’s inevitably a scene where the good guy is in serious trouble, but he uses a mind game to throw his opponent for a loop, thereby creating an opportunity to turn the tables.

Obviously, grunts can be distracting, but they can also mask the sound of one’s opponent’s strike on the ball. After hitting a few million balls in practice, a top player gets cues as to velocity and direction from the sound of impact. Without that input, some studies have measured slower reaction times by the defender.

Tennis Players Grunt for More Power

Probably for a variety of reasons, players are able to hit with measurably more authority when grunting. Combine some relaxation and stress relief with a focus on the moment of impact, and that grunt can make your server or return even faster.

Studies have demonstrated that grunters can increase the power of a groundstroke by up to four percent, and the benefit is even more substantial when serving, nearing a five percent increase. When you stop to consider the minuscule performance differences between winning and losing at the top tiers of the sport, a few percentage points might just be the difference between going home empty-handed and millions in prize money plus a wall of major tournament trophies.

Predictive Tennis Grunting?

Here’s a fun angle on grunting science you can put to the test the next time you watch a match.

Like other mammals on our planet, grunts’ tone and sound can mean a lot. Generally speaking, a lower-pitch grunt (or roar in the animal kingdom) is a sign of dominance or, in our sporting world, victory. Higher-pitch grunts are often observed with less dominant behavior or, in sports, frustration and loss.

If you hear your favorite player’s grunts increasing in pitch, maybe prepare for a tough loss.

All that grunting must be exhausting. From informal observation of the Danielle Collins vs. Paula Badosa 1st round match, while the grunting on both sides was powerful and consistent in the first set, it ebbed and flowed during the second. Alas, Collins maintained the lower-pitch grunts, winning 6-1, 6-4.

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