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JAK'S MONTHLY ESSAY SERIES: Achieving Your Personal Best

The Beautiful Game is Getting Ugly

July 2023

Like every other sport, tennis keeps evolving, thankfully, mostly for the better. But not always. Case in point being the increasingly occurring, ridiculously offensive high volume player roars at the shot making moment regularly taking place on both the ATP and WTA tours.

Okay, nothing new, but, unless you've been off the grid, it's steadily escalating. And, yes, of course I'm factoring in the often juiced courtside microphones.

Collage of tennis greats scowling as they grunt

Be alarmed. Let's hope, down the road, tennis matches do not become unlistenable on Tennis Channel telecasts, as in the current necessity to adjust the volume down, or even completely off at times, when the screamers, and/or the moaners, are doing their thing.

Although no annual playing period during the year is completely immune, the longish European clay swing that culminates with the French Open - always just prior to the comparatively brief, and more civil, grass court (faster points) segment leading up to The Championships - appears to bring the most vocal out of their closets and into their melodramatic death throes on every single shot in those typical protracted points on the slow red dirt. Okay typically not on drop shots or one-handed chip backhands… so far.

Some of this craziness even takes place well after impact with the ball well on its way to the opponent instead of the long established norm at one's own impact. Huh?

The current most glaring example of this abomination was recent FO number 2 seed, Aryna Sabalanka, consistently still screaming right at 43rd ranked (prior to tournament) Karolina Muchova's shot impact in their recent thrilling semi-final. Should that be allowed? Isn't that a hindrance? The drama queen went on to blow a 5-2 lead in the 3rd set - live by the scream; die by the scream, while Muchova was consistently cool, calm, and collected without the histrionics.

In any event, the way this is trending bodes very poorly for tennis' future. Absolutely ridiculous. A Simon and Garfunkel reunion could adapt a longtime popular lyric, “where have you gone Billie Jean King?”

More and more, we're listening to tennis matches that sound like they're emanating from medieval torture chambers. The emotional upheaval of it all, manifested in these sustained Arthur Janov inspired primal screams - individually tonal at every conceivable octave with some players even featuring two syllables - now somehow apparently perceived by too many, players and coaches alike, in today's game as a necessary component for success, especially among the especially emotionally needy dirt ballers in those long rallies.

It's become operatic. No? (Nadal speak.) Victoria Azarenka, former major champion and still competing after a time away from the game, is now a comparative church mouse in today's game.

What happened to the understated, but nonetheless still just as fiercely combative, beautiful game from not that long ago? Is it heading towards extinction now that “The Federer” - as Marat Safin once famously referred to him at his peak - has departed from the mountain top of tennis' greater sensibilities in exchange for family ski outings in the Swiss Alps?

You had to turn the television volume up to hear him.

Who is responsible for this bad seed? Was it Jimmy Connors first in the 70s (sounding like a “wounded seal” according to the late Hall of Fame scribe Bud Collins), and then Monica Seles after him? Martina Navratolova once complained to the chair umpire during their 1992 Wimbledon semis showdown - and I believe to officials prior to the match - that Seles' grunting was so loud at her own shot contact that she (Navratolova) couldn't hear the ball being struck to her auditory disadvantage. (Yes, the sound of ball impact on the strings can be informative with regard to the amount of spin applied to a given shot.) Together, more than any other notable earlier players, they popularized “grunting” as we experience it now.

So, in today's tour world it begs the question, why are the sport's governing bodies allowing this escalating cacophony circus? Such a black eye to the game's time-honored traditions, elegance and class. One actually can breathe effectively without approaching sonic boom levels. Did I mention Federer?

Caroline Wozniacki, former world #1, once observed that the biggest offenders were consistently quiet when on the practice court. Hmm.

What an absolute pleasure watching, and hearing, the women's FO final featuring Michova and Iga Swiatek, both competing ferociously, and fully emotionally invested, but without the auditory bologna. “Poland Garros” as a spectators sign read in the end.

Or, the Queens' Club semis encounter between Alex DeMinaur and the precocious Holger Rune. A quiet affair on the fast grass between two motivated players.

Ironically, way back in the 80s during my junior academy coaching years, the FTA (Florida Tennis Association then, now USTA/Florida), presciently (?) mandated an end to “grunting” in FL sanctioned junior events. The little copy cats were, of course, mimicking the most vocal tour players.

Well intentioned I suppose, but impossible to enforce, and a little too much of an establishment knee jerk. It was quickly abandoned when the Florida tennis community (parents, players, and coaches) revolted, since said coaches - myself included - schooled in the advent of the emerging mental toughness techniques, were teaching young players the all-important component of both breathing in and then exhaling out at shot impact to facilitate physical relaxation, emotional relaxation, and better shot synching as well.

Now, the prescient fears of those FTA blue blazered traditionalists, some 40 years later, at least at the pro level, regrettably have come to fruition, always especially noticeable at Roland Garros, and/or any South American clay event inhabited by red dirt ball specialists.

Is it time for an on-court decibel meter? You bet it is, before it becomes even worse. Exceed an established, reasonable noise ceiling setting with blood curdling screaming, or the especially annoying and, to me, embarrassing sustained voluminous moaning - as if a family member has just died – after every single shot, and the offending player would then automatically lose the point.

The end of this cheapening of the game would cease overnight.

Getting back to the playing artistry that's still preferred among most fans, versus the drama kings and queens with their way over the top emotional emoting, many players are, thankfully, comparatively quiet.

We have game improving, argument ending Hawkeye line calling, and a serve clock for stalling players (thank you Rafa and Djokovic), why not a consideration for the sound of the game?

Copyright©2017- by Jak Beardsworth Tennis. All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

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Past Essays

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  • December 2023 - The Forgotten Stop Volley
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Essay Archives

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  • December 2017 - Why Serving is so Difficult in Clubland [read more]
  • October 2017 - Managing your body and mind in tennis space [read more]
  • August 2017 - Why Bother Breathing to Improve Your Game [read more]
  • May 2017 - The "Maintaining" One's Game as One Ages Fallacy [read more]
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