To Grunt or Not To Grunt: A Question of Gender Discrimination?

tennis ballDuring the 2009 French Open Tennis Tournament Portuguese teen tennis star Michelle Larcher de Brito made a stir with her elongated “shrieks” when she strikes the ball. Wimbledon officials are now considering making a rule banning loud grunting for female players. While she claims it is just “part of the game” opponents and fans say otherwise.

As a former collegiate tennis player and coach, I get the distracting and annoying nature of loud grunting by an opponent. That is one side of the issue. Another side of this issue is the problematic and gendered nature of this discussion and pending rule.

First, male players on tour also grunt upon impact, therefore a rule should be equally applied to both men and women. However, there has been no parallel discussion of a rule application to the men’s tournament (although Connors, and Agassi were criticized for their noises). Second, the way Larcher de Brito’s grunts are being constructed in the media as “shrieks”,”screams”, and “annoying squeals”… it appears that males players grunts are expected. Third, this isn’t the first time the discussion of a “grunt/shriek rule” for female tennis players has surfaced. If you recall, in the ’90’s Monica Seles was the original purveyor of loud grunting on impact…and while there was much grumbling then, no rules were enacted. Maria Sharapova was also criticized early on for her grunting, but that seemed to subside as she took over the Kournikova mantle as the “poster girl” of the WTA.

Many scholars have documented how female athletes have to constantly negotiate the tension between the movements, noises, muscles, and bodies that are needed to perform optimally and adhering to a narrow ideal of femininity. Clearly, loud shrieking is NOT feminine and therefore is troubling and must be regulated (i.e., “make the offending women act more ladylike so we can enjoy the match!).

Update to post: June 24, 2009: NPR weighs in on issue “Tennis, The Grunting Game?” in which sports journalist Christine Brennan gives her take, and another commentary by Frank Deford “It’s Time For Tennis Players To Make Some Noise”. You can also read Pat Griffin’s take on her blog.

5 Replies to “To Grunt or Not To Grunt: A Question of Gender Discrimination?”

  1. You know ladies if this was 10 or 20 years ago I would of sympathize with these women but today women have to stop whining and stand up to the consequences of their action. If we want to hold top world posts then we have to stop whining like little kids in a popsicle store. I was present at the match with DeBrito when she clearly was loud in her screaming and if anyone knows Michelle it is more of a power thing and attention thing more than the effect of breathing through solid strokes. There are a few like her and as an avid tennis fan and supporter if it affects the other player then it should stop. And as for the men why not wait until the men complain about it and leave them out of this mess. The women already play 3 sets when the men play 5 and get the same pay and they don’t complain so, abide by the rules and stop complaining about stupid little things like screaming for attention in a tennis match!

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    1. Jewell, You offer an interesting perspective having seen DeBrito play live. I’m not in disagreement that she most likely is grunting excessively and that is distracting to opponents, borderline bad sportsmanship, and as you point out probably gamesmanship. I think the players do have a right to complain but my main point in this post is to point out how the media is constructing the issue, and how the reactions of the fans “who are annoyed and bothered in the stands” also seem to be driving a possible rule. As far as your comment about the 3 v. 5 sets, I’ve long believed the women should play 5 sets just like the men, or that everyone should play 3 sets. Thanks for you insights and post.

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  2. I was on the court next to DeBrito when she played either her first or second-round match–and yes, very loud. Actually it differs from other grunts/shrieks/etc. I have heard in that it sounds painful. And perhaps this is part of the issue: women and injury/frailty. Perhaps not.
    Regardless, it is undoubtedly a gender issue. I cannot imagine what kind of rule would be made. Are we going to have a decibel reader next to the radar gun? Even if DeBrito is, in part, enaging in this behavior as part of gamespersonship, her opponent, in protesting, could be doing the same. These things happen all the time. Excessive trips to the towel (I’m talking to you, Andy Roddick!), long injury timeouts, lots of movement. They are difficult to regulate because to do so would require measuring level of intent–impossible.
    It is the attention female athletes receive that is troubling. I heard Monica Seles on an episode of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me recently and there was a lot of focus on the grunting. I don’t really think this is the kind of attention female tennis players want from the media–yet we keep hearing about it–which makes me think the majority of it is not purposeful. Could they train themselves not to do it? Sure. But should they have to?

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    1. Ken,
      You bring up a valuable point in that there seems to be more media coverage of female tennis player’s grunting, than female tennis player’s TENNIS…..and the fact that regulating loud grunting is a slippery slope. Thanks for your post. -nml

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  3. I disagree that gender discrimination exists in this matter. Very few women grunt, and those who do–Medina Garrigues, Safina, etc.–are not at all distracting. The men, such as Ferrer, Nalbandian, etc. who grunt, are not distracting. If the sports press would stop referring to screaming as “grunting,” it would help. If there is any discrimination at all, it involves fear of confronting top stars such as Venus Williams and Sharapova, who scream loudly. They, Azarenka and Larcher de Brito are the big screamers on the tour. An ITF referee said he thought there was more complaint about Larcher de Brito because her screams are longer. The longer the scream, the more likely it is that the opponent’s ability to hear the ball struck will be impaired.

    However, many players say they are not at all distracted or impaired by playing against the screamers.

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