Shriek 3: Can grunts predict the outcome of a tennis match?

Source: James Stevenson cartoon, The New Yorker.

In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes and the never-ending fascination with the science of shriek.

I’ve previously posted several times on grunting in tennis.  For example, while it can indeed distract an opponent, it can simultaneously help the grunter hit harder. Furthermore (and fortunately for certain tennis players), it is accursedly difficult from a physiological standpoint for a loud grunter to rupture their own eardrums.

Maria Sharapova, the unofficial queen of shriek. Source: Adam Pretty.

A study published by Raine, Pisanski and Reby who cumulatively have expertise in animal behavior, mammalian communication, psychology and tennis analyzed the frequency (Hz) or pitch of grunts during tennis matches and what they might non-verbally communicate to listeners.  To do this, they watched an inordinate amount of tennis matches – specifically 50, involving 30 of the top ranked guys and gals – and determined what they term the “fundamental frequency (Hz)” or pitch of each player’s grunt at the beginning of the match, as well as how it evolved throughout.

One of their findings was that the presumed average grunt pitch was lower in players that won and higher in those that lost.  I’m likening a low grunt pitch to the United States Marine Corps “Oorah” versus the high grunt pitch typically ascribed to Maria Sharapova, the tonality of which has been described by first author Raine as “shrieky, like birds of paradise.”

Strikingly, this grunt differential was apparent very early on in the match and didn’t change much throughout the match.  Hence, the low pitch grunts heard early on in the match – before score trends were apparent – were significantly correlated with winning outcomes.  That meant the outcome of the match might already be pre-determined at the start “…suggesting a possible role of physiological and/or psychological factors manifesting early or even before matches.” Perhaps players might have been tailoring their grunts subconsciously, perhaps knowing they were already going to win. 

Fascinating, as Mr. Spock would say.

MollyVolley, already tailoring her grunts during pre-match warmup. Source: Charles M. Schulz.
Snoopy, already annoyed at his opponent who has already begun grunting during pre-match warmup. Source: Charles M. Schulz.

Animalistic Tennis

Recall that our study authors had expertise in mammalian communication and animal behavio(u)r.  An interesting comparison to grunting in competitive tennis stems from within the animal kingdom.  It appears that we in our little family of Hominidae that play tennis bear some similarity in behavior to those of the family Cervidae.  More specifically, similarity to the C. elaphus species known conversationally to Europeans – note the study authors are from the University of Sussex, England – as Red Deer.  Red Deer species of course, are known in the American vernacular as “real big mother******’ deer.”

Red Deer bellowing. Source: Jonathan Lewis, Norfolk Wildlife Photography.

The similarity to competing tennis players then, is that the male of the species are known to “bellow” at each other while competing for females. The more successful males had longer “bellows” at lower frequencies.  Success in turn attracted more mates, with the most successful male deer ultimately possessing the largest yes, harem.  It would appear then, that the lowest grunt frequency always seems to win, in at least tennis matches and Red Deer mating rituals.  And yes, occasionally antler-cuffs (similarly to human fisticuffs) will ensue if neither deer backs down from the bellowing contest.

Concluding questions

The bottom line then, is that at a more primal competitive level, we tennis players have similarities to other mammals in that higher frequency match grunting indicates a form of weakness – be it psychological and/or physiological – that in the case of Raines et al. are also predictive enough to determine match outcomes very early on.

So what can we do with this information?

  • Presuming one is healthy both physically and psychologically, could this finding provide an edge on the court?
  • Is the predictive value true during close matches?  What, for example was the grunt pitch predictive of in the longest match in history, John Isner vs. Nicholas Mahut, 2010 Wimbledon?  What about during the 2018 US Open Women’s Final debacle involving Serena Williams vs Naomi Osaka?
  • Can this finding re-invent tennis gambling? This is not an endorsement.
  • Will tennis parents everywhere read this and have anxiety attacks when they hear their son/daughter grunting at a higher pitch than their opponent?
  • Ultimately, can Raines et al. even analyze Aryna Sabalenka’s grunting pattern, which I anecdotally note during the 2018 US Open to be the nocturnal cacophony endemic to Costa Rican jungles i.e. her grunt mimics that of several different players and can change with every stroke.  (Conspiratorially, with her recent success, it’s clear that retired ATP player and Sabalenka’s new coach DmitryTursunov has read my posts on both the disruptive and the aiding nature of the grunt.)

Miscellany

Cinematic Shrieks:  Writing about grunting in tennis has reminded me of the “Wilhelm Scream.”  This stock sound effect was created sometime in the 1950s and is pervasive throughout Hollywood movies even today as an inside joke.  If you’ve never heard of this, I warn you it’s ridiculous, yet its history is worth the few whimsical moments that you’ll never get back:


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