The Tennis Space has been shown a document produced by the Nick Bollettieri Academy, which urges players not to use “an unfair and unethical tactic”.
In the battle to shush the tennis grunters, here is an important acknowledgement from a place that some regard as a production plant for the world’s screamers and shriekers.
Coaches at Nick Bollettieri’s academy in Florida have acknowledged that the excessive noise that some players make as they hit the ball is “unsportsmanlike” and “a distraction to the opponent”. The Tennis Space has been shown a document written by Dr Angus Mugford, the director of the academy’s Mental Conditioning Division – which sounds a bit like something out of George Orwell’s 1984 – in which he urged players not to try to “beat your opponents with an unfair or unethical tactic”.
The thinking at the Bollettieri academy clearly matters. There have been long been accusations that players at the academy have been taught how to grunt (always denied) – with critics pointing out that three of the noisiest women in the modern game, in Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova and Michelle Larcher de Brito, all trained there. Speaking at last year’s season-ending championships in Istanbul, Caroline Wozniacki effectively accused some unnamed grunters of cheating, with the world number one alleging that a few players deliberately made a loud noise when striking the ball so as to put off their opponent. Part of the response from Stacey Allaster, the chief executive and chairman of the Women’s Tennis Association, was to disclose that the WTA would be talking to the Bollettieri academy about how to stop the next generation being such loud grunters.
Mugford’s document, entitled ‘Breathing vs Grunting in Tennis’, suggested there are “a number of factors that help performance through optimal breathing”. It goes on to say: “This document is set to provide an understanding about the continuum from holding your breath to extreme grunting and provide a guide to our top tips to optimal breathing. The goal is not to beat your opponent with an unfair or unethical tactic, the goal is to provide mechanisms to help a player manage their emotions.”
There is an acknowledgement that breathing/grunting can help performance. One way is through “psychological and physiological release of tension”, and the other is through “synchronising breathing precisely with hitting ball, as that increases focus, intensity and force production”. The document goes on to state that grunting is “unsportsmanlike” as it is a distraction to the opponent because “of an inability to hear the impact on strings, and the byproducts of this include an increase in an opponent’s decision error, and a slower response time for the opponent”. But holding your breath, and not breathing or grunting, “increases tension and can negatively impact the mechanics of your stroke”. The goal, according to Mugford, is to manage optimal breathing on the breathing continuum, with extreme grunt at one end (which has “a negative impact on the opponent”) and holding your breath at the other (which has “a negative impact on yourself”). The document gives guidance as to how a player should be breathing during points – breathe in as the ball comes to you, and breathe out as the ball comes off your strings.
Much thought has gone into how a player breathes on court - there are step by steps guides to relaxation techniques and learning how to breathe properly: “Make sure you will not be interrupted for the next 15 minutes or so, shut off your phone, lock the door, and put a sign on the door so you will not be bothered.” Students at the academy are advised that, “the key to breathing is that the more you practice it the better you will become at focusing your nerves”.
As Bollettieri has said, “we’ve been doing research with our trainers and doctors about how to relax the body without grunting – we don’t want them to stop breathing, because they still have to release the tension”.