Among the longstanding conventions in the sometimes stodgy sport of tennis, like wearing all white at Wimbledon or dutifully shaking your opponent’s damp, calloused hand after a match, is one we’ve been perfecting since time immemorial: ridiculing women for making sounds. Though the sport’s original punk Jimmy Connors gets credit for popularizing the modern tennis grunt, people only really began complaining about it when Monica Seles — and Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka after her — became household names. This foul discourse has since droned on, aggravated in large part by the famously prudent British media tabloids who give it fresh legs every June and July, when Wimbledon rolls around.
In 2009, for instance, the Daily Mail mystifyingly asked Michael Stich, who has not played professionally since 1997, for his thoughts on women making noises as they hit tennis balls. “It sounds disgusting, ugly, and unsexy,” he said, adding that female tennis players were only there to “sell sex.” BBC’s radio broadcast of Wimbledon later rolled out a feature allowing listeners to mute the sounds of players. In 2012, the WTA, the governing body of women’s tennis, announced an obviously unworkable plan to deter players from grunting because “fans find it bothersome.” Tennis legend and outspoken TERF Martina Navratilova, who once wrote an op-ed in the UK Sunday Times calling the idea of trans athletes competing against ciswomen “insane,” has likened grunting to cheating. And in a season three episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, after his wife Cheryl beats him in tennis, Larry David protests that her grunts sound like “pigs fucking.” (Despite the ugly legacy of such complaints, this was pretty funny).
A casual fan would be forgiven for assuming this problem unique to women’s tennis, but the truth is that men grunt as often if not more frequently than their less well-paid lady colleagues. There’s not much hard science on the topic, but the journal Animal Behaviour did publish a study in 2017 which found that, of the top 30 players on the men’s and women’s tours, 90 percent of men produced grunts during their matches compared to just 76 percent of women. And, this past week, while watching the French Open between the paper-thin walls of my Brooklyn apartment, it was mostly during the men’s matches that I began to worry my neighbors would think I was watching porn all day on a highly sophisticated speaker system. Which compelled me, in a triumph of imagination and a retributive act of feminism, toward a taxonomy of men’s tennis grunts, organized less by real metrics like volume and frequency than by how sexual they sound. Below is a small but deafening sample size.
World number one Novak Djokovic holds a lot of bad opinions. His refusal to get vaccinated led to his deportation from Australia earlier this year on the eve of the season’s first Grand Slam, and he believes that, through the power of gratitude and prayer, one can alter the molecular composition of polluted water. He also claims to have discovered his allergy to gluten by holding a slice of bread to his stomach. But when asked, in 2012, about the contentious matter of women grunting, he had a rare good take. “There is no rule that forbids them to grunt,” he said. “Everybody has a different way of expressing themselves on the court.” This might have something to do with Novak’s own exertions, which are as primal and labored as you’d expect from someone whose father believes him to be “the Spartacus of the new world.” Something between a whine and a moan, they get longer as matches go on and more dramatic in big moments; late in his four-set loss to Nadal on Tuesday, the pair’s record 59th match, one such grunt took on a sing-songy cadence, a two-part wuuuh-uhhh. Of the men’s players, his is the most pornographic, a battle cry you’re as likely to hear at Sean Cody Studios as on the terre battue.
Nadal’s grunt might be the tour’s loudest, more punctual and muscular than that of Djokovic. It’s so iconic and recognizable that, in a video where his fellow players were asked to “guess the grunt,” all correctly identified Nadal’s, a chesty blast that hardly varies from the first point to the last. His frequent sparring partner Roger Federer once called it distracting. But Rafa can’t help it. “When I am playing, when I am hitting the ball during the point, the last thing that I am thinking is try to bother the opponent,” he countered. “Only thing that I am focusing is try to hit my ball well.” It’s a fearsome sound, suggesting that Rafa is kicking things into high gear, which he continues to do at the age of 36 despite a chronic foot injury. But, if you heard it in flagrante, it would be unpleasant or even worrisome, so for that reason it’s docked a point.
Carlos Alcaraz, the boy wonder of men’s tennis, has risen from number 120 to number 6 in the rankings in just a year with a combination of pure athleticism and flashy shotmaking that has rightly earned him comparisons to Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, all of whom are old enough to be his parents. Taking after his compatriot Nadal, he lets out a formidable bark, with a kind of wheezing preamble as he winds up to hit his dangerous forehand. Sadly, Alcaraz lost in the quarterfinals of the French to Alexander Zverev, an underachieving brat with a history of domestic abuse and a sickly, drawn-out squawk on the court. Alcaraz’s grunt sounded much fresher, like a roar of the jungle.
The only men’s tennis player I know of who has been suspended for testing positive for cocaine (which he attributed to having “kissed” a woman named “Pamela” at a music festival), Richard Gasquet’s grunt is understandably vocal-fried, likely weakened by blocked nasal passages and a sore throat. It’s vulnerable and open-hearted; it makes space for you. And, like French people, it is feminine and artful, easy to imagine in the bedroom.
Before I run out of new ways to characterize tennis grunts, we have the young Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime, a top ten player and grunter. FAA, as he’s called, has a distinctive and guttural grunt, reminiscent of whatever Christian Bale did to his voice in The Dark Knight. If this is your thing, you might find it very pornographic. Earlier this year, after their five-set epic at the Australian Open, world number two Daniil Medvedev even admitted its contagious effects. “He was putting a lot of intensity in his grunt,” Medvedev said of FAA. “And when I started to like really fight for my life, I was, like, I’m going to grunt also.” Very well put!
American men’s tennis has been in its flop era for about 20 years, which might explain why the young Californian Jensen Brooksby so often sounds frightened, like he just witnessed a jump scare. Though the volume changes, getting louder on important points, Brooksby’s grunt sounds like AHHH! and is generally unappealing.
Roger Federer hardly emits a sound on the tennis court, which makes his occasional grunts a sort of novelty noise, ergo, sexy and imposing. So rare is a Federer grunt that, when you search “Federer grunt” on YouTube, as I just did, one of the first results is a video where his shots have been dubbed with Nadal’s grunt. But over the years I have watched him play enough to have heard it, the soft but husky gasp of ardor as he stretches to his backhand side. Federer, who is turning 41 this summer, may never play another professional tennis match, but he can be seen out-acting Anne Hathway in this recent commercial for his native Switzerland. One gets the sense he grunts only when it’s necessary for advancing the plot.
João Sousa (very loud); Nick Kyrgios (owl-like); Andy Murray (gritty)
Jake Nevins is a writer and reporter living in Brooklyn.