Victoria Heinicke, tennis' first grunter. Plus: Notes on the evolution of grunting.

The stadium scene.
Sept. 14 2011 4:36 PM

Tennis: An Aural History

Victoria Heinicke, the sport's first grunter. Plus: Notes on the evolution of grunting.

Take Slate's interactive grunting quiz and try to match the shriek to the tennis player.

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In the early 1960s, top women's players got their rackets for free, but there was no prize money at the national singles championships or the junior nationals. Traveling across the country for tournaments was an expensive, unappealing proposition for Heinicke and her young family. "Gladys Heldman and Billie Jean King started women's pro tennis, and that was a very difficult life," she says. "They were on the road and traveling across the country on buses. That was not something that I wanted to do."

After Heinicke left the sport, the best players of the 1970s—Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, Andrea Jaeger, and Jimmy Connors—nurtured grunts of their own. As the grunts grew more forceful, so did the calls to press the mute button. In 1981, an umpire at Wimbledon asked Connors—whose on-court growl fit in with his blue-collar image—to tone it down. "I told him there was nothing I could do and he could only default me," Connors told reporters after the match, adding derisively that "I am grunting well this year." Connors was not defaulted, making this the first in a long series of ineffectual pleas for comprehensive grunting reform.

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The terrain shifted in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the Nick Bollettieri-schooled Monica Seles and Andre Agassi pumped up the volume. Ted Tinling once referred to Seles' grunt as sounding "like a Christmas goose being strangled to death." Others compared it to a "grunt right out of a pig sty" or "the wail of strangled bagpipes." It wasn't just the press and Wimbledon officials who complained—Seles and Agassi drew increasing ire from their sonically terrorized opponents.

Victoria Heinicke (then Victoria Palmer) in action in the early 1960s. Click image to expand.
Victoria Heinicke (then Victoria Palmer)

At Wimbledon in 1992—the genteel All England Club has often served as the sport's noise battleground —Martina Navratilova twice groused to the chair umpire about Seles' grunting during their semifinal match. While Nancy Richey says that Heinicke's grunts helped with her timing, Navratilova argued that Seles' louder wails prevented her from hearing ball hit racket. (A recent study, which found that grunts slowed down opponents' reaction time, backs Navratilova's point.) Navratilova also complained that Seles' intonation changed throughout the match. In that sense, the Seles sound was arguably a hindrance—something akin to the distracting "Come on!" of Serena Williams.

"There were two or three points when I said, Monica, don't grunt, don't grunt," Seles said after her match against Navratilova, explaining why she couldn't quiet down. "But you know, it's such a tense match." Stung by Navratilova's criticism and the mockery of the London tabloids' "Grunt-o-Meters," Seles forced herself to play the Wimbledon final against Steffi Graf in eerie silence. In her autobiography, Seles says this decision is "one of the only things I've regretted in my life." Though she'd just beaten her German rival to win the French Open, this time Seles was routed 6-2, 6-1. A short time later, Seles ended her brief grunt interregnum, and she trounced Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario to win the U.S. Open. (A few months after that, Seles was stabbed on the court by a madman. She won just one more grand slam title.)

Heinicke says Seles' struggles during her quiet period are easy to understand. "I wouldn't have been able to play, bottom line, if they had banned grunting," she says. "That's how I hit the ball. And I'd say that a lot of the tennis players [now] wouldn't be able to stop [either]."

Though she says today's louder, shriller players don't bother her, it's telling that Heinicke compared her grunt to that of David Ferrer. The game's earliest grunters, both men and women, sounded like today's male players, emitting a guttural unnngh upon making contact with the ball. The Sharapova and Azarenka screams sound less natural and less necessary. Bud Collins believes referees should use the hindrance rule—the regulation that cost Williams a point when she screamed against Samantha Stosur—to penalize the loudest grunters. Nancy Richey suggests that tennis implement an official, London-tabloid-esque Grunt-o-Meter and punish players who cross a noise threshold. Her suggested outer limit: "as loud as a lawnmower."

Along with Richey, retired greats Evert and Navratilova have both spoken out about the game's rising noise level, with the latter saying that grunting "is cheating, pure and simple." It's no coincidence that Navratilova was the one to call out Seles: By 1992, she was 35 years old, a relic from a more peaceful age. Serena Williams, by contrast, grew up idolizing Seles. "I loved her game. I loved her grunt," Williams told ESPN.com's Darren Rovell in 2005. "So my grunt is kind of like hers a little bit, where it's like a double-grunt." Since most of this generation's top pros grew up grunting, they have no incentive to end the shrieking era. From their perspective, a noise ban would be mutually assured destruction.

For her part, Heinicke doesn't believe today's lawnmower sounds are her legacy. "When I was young I did well," she says, "and it had nothing to do with my grunting." Besides, even the loudest grunters bug her less than players who stall between points—back when she played, nobody even sat down during changeovers. The other major difference between tennis then and now: television. The same equipment that allows viewers to hear racket hit ball also amplifies whatever sounds come out of the players' mouths. "When I played the microphones never picked up my grunting," she told me via email. "We have come a long way electronically!!!"

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