Strategic tennis grunts (from our email)

by on July 10, 2017 at 12:36 am in Games, Sports | Permalink

Hi guys:

I can pass along that there’s another angle to the grunts (having played a lot of tennis).  The sound of the ball hitting the racket provides useful information, particularly for a mishit or a powerful shot — because you have to move up or back quickly to cope. For years, top tennis players have used grunts and shrieks to conceal this sound from their opponents (e.g. I always thought Sharapova, and Seles years ago, were prime offenders). There’s no need for such noises as a function of effort, or events like NBA games would sound much different.  But the tennis authorities haven’t done anything about it.

In table tennis, where I have a very long involvement, the spin on the ball is tremendous in high-level play — so much so that a concealed dead ball (with no spin) is a very effective tactic because the opponent will err by responding to the spin that isn’t there. Years back, a totally dead racket covering was developed for this purpose; even worse, it tends to continue the spin so that the originator effectively gets the reverse back of what he put on the ball. A top US player with whom I grew up developed a style where he used only one side of the racket for both forehand and backhand, while frequently flipping between the spinny and dead sides of his racket that were colored the same. Players could hear the difference, however, as the dead side made a little thud when struck. His innovation was to stomp his foot on the floor each time he struck the ball (going beyond the norm of the time of just stomping on the serve). A subsequent regulatory change required rackets to have one red and one black side, to facilitate keeping track of which rubber covering is being used for a given shot.


Carl [Danner]

And here is my previous link to a new study of tennis grunts.  And Carl sends along this video for table tennis.  Sports aside, what other social practices fit this “misdirection” model?

1 anonymous July 10, 2017 at 1:15 am

In the old days people use to tell people they did not want to talk to “I am a very busy man” even if they weren’t. They were “words without meaning”, as our existentialist friends might say, mere grunts to win the sad contest of unfriendly selfishness, desire to spend one’s own time the way one wants. Today, second-rate comedians always give a (hopefully funny) look of confusion when they know they wasted people’s time saying something that was not funny: more unfriendly selfishness (Friendly comedians quit when they know they are no longer funny) . If you read English bios of old-school academics they often used the word “nonsense” in a dishonest way when replying to theories, or even sub-theoretical allusions to singular facts, which they did not understand. People in their 30s get a lot of sneers from other people, people older than that get less because people don’t care as much what older people think. But it is more fun to talk about sports: everyone knows that some cities have teams that just do not have the grit and enthusiasm to win (DC, NY for the most part, LA, San Diego) and a conversation about sports in those cities often includes the opposite of the tennis grunts: a realization that, in fact, that which we love is less than perfect, not just in peripheral ways but in their sphere, in the ways that count. (Sharapova and Seles are two of my favorite tennis players: how sad that someone would call them offenders! Sure they are no Chrissie Evertses but who is, when you think about it? I am no big fan of the grunting but that is a small detail in their great careers).


2 anonymous July 10, 2017 at 1:20 am

Not a single one of the Three Stooges – or their costars like Marjorie White – ever gave an apologetic or begging look of “confusion” after saying or doing something that failed to be funny. They were true professionals; the language they created had many grunts in it but those were not misdirection grunts, not at all.


3 anonymous July 10, 2017 at 2:18 am

Andrea Jaeger and Martina Hingis? MIlagro Sequera?


4 A clockwork orange July 10, 2017 at 5:54 pm

Do grunions make sounds? It is not clear. Fish often make sounds when breeding, a cacophony even, and other grunts and farts, but the rate of sound has been going down in the Anthropocene.

Is it related to their homeostasis levels? It is not clear. It is indeed related to anthropic principles.


5 anonymous on Carrot Top July 10, 2017 at 1:28 am

That being said every famous comedian I can think of – not just the Three Stooges and their costars – was, at some point, funny. In real life how often do you meet somebody as funny as Carrot Top, for example?


6 anonymous on Carrot Top July 10, 2017 at 1:44 am

How often? Twice in 34 years: First: 1984 – Alameda County Fair, Pleasanton: a very funny dentist (who won the chugging contest, I kid you not)…. Second: a Midwesterner on (well, not on but near) an aircraft carrier just after the Cold War ended. Since then, I don’t remember any. (So, 2 people in 34 years, and I meet dozens of people a year: Carrot Top has a right to be proud of his craft).


7 A Reader July 10, 2017 at 1:37 am

What a bunch of shitheads. This is the game. Learn it. In Chess this happens all the time.


8 anonymous on Carrot Top July 10, 2017 at 2:01 am

Nobody is going to read the “vitae sanctorum” because of an internet comment but several saints – Thomas More, from England, and Lawrence, who lived in the days of the Roman Empire (and who has a first class feast day later this summer), and several others, I think, are recorded as having tried to make people laugh with their last words. This is also true of one or two real or fictional chess players: the “lore” of chess is not all that extensive and anyone who has been interested in chess for long enough already knows that. Nobody should be defined by the fact that once in a while they inappropriately grunted. Or appropriately grunted, in which case, good for them. We all need to be kinder to each other: if a tennis player wants to grunt, good for her or him: as Vince Lombardi said, why not win if you can? Leo Durocher said the same thing, but, as an existentialist, he said it in an awkward way, so almost nobody, including me, wants to quote him.


9 anonymous on carrot Top July 10, 2017 at 2:16 am

#feliz lunedi. try to be nice for a day; #feliz jeuves


10 Dzhaughn July 10, 2017 at 3:20 am

I could never get convincing spin on my bishops, and they wouldn’t let me wrap them up with tape.


11 Ray Lopez July 10, 2017 at 3:40 am

Trolls are out in force in the comments section.

In chess I would say ‘misdirection’, which happens in kids tournaments more than adults (but also happens with adults; Ivanchuk complained in a casual way about it when annotating a game vs Savchenko that Chucky won last year in the Turkish Super League) is for a player to pick up a piece, pretend to move it to one square, then hesitate, make a face, then move it to another square. But this is a feigned move, just a psychological trick to get the opponent thinking that you have not thought through your moves. Or a variant might be to make a face after making a move, as if you wish to take it back.


12 anonymous on carrot Top July 10, 2017 at 7:02 pm

well, try to be nice some other day. Every day is a gift.


13 anonymous on Carrot Top July 10, 2017 at 2:23 am

#feliz martes #feliz miércoles (the “eu” in jueves made me think it meant Tuesday, a common mistake: sorry!)


14 anonymous on Carrot Top July 10, 2017 at 2:36 am

There was a point to that – just proving I’m not “Carrot Top” – who speaks no Spanish, I think …. #feliz lunedi


15 anonymous on carrot Top July 10, 2017 at 3:05 am

Hay mil verdades el error es uno (there are a thousand truths, error is unique – Don Colacho)


16 Ray Lopez July 10, 2017 at 3:51 am

Wow, table tennis has evolved quite a bit since 1991. Check out this highlights video of a player from Europe, Timo Boll, and see how much spin he puts on the ball, it’s insane. In one clip the opponent trips over himself and crosses the net trying to hit the ping pong.


17 Carl Danner July 10, 2017 at 10:01 am

Yes, it has — in part because of another rule change that made the ball bigger and encouraged an evolution towards styles where players use heavy topspin almost continuously. Here’s another modern example:


18 MikeP July 10, 2017 at 10:32 am

Speaking of beneficial rule changes, it’s obvious they should make the goals larger in soccer. Every time I mention this to my friends involved in the sport, though, they think I’m silly, as if net size was given to us by God.


19 londenio July 10, 2017 at 5:23 am

In teaching. A lot of teaching –especially in business and the social sciences– is misdirection.

Think about the case study method. A case study is nothing but a simple puzzle constructed in such a way to confuse, very much like a magic trick or a good “whodunnit” crime book or film. Students discuss the case and the teacher directs the discussion such that it seems rich and complex. Then starts bringing structure and putting together the pieces. The smart and wise teacher reveals the hidden pattern. But the hidden pattern was not hidden by the intrinsic complexity of the problem, but by the design of the case and the class.

I remember a teacher of “organizational behavior” that angered his colleagues by revealing in the first semester a list of take-aways from all the subsequent courses. This was just a quick list/summary of the “aha moments|, but essentially ruined the show for the teachers who wanted to reach those aha moments via long deliberations. I don’t think you can do the same in thermodynamics or electromagnetism.

More generally, think about how many lectures starts with a “puzzle” that is not really a puzzle. I admit that this technique is useful because it shows that a problem has many angles and that even simple questions are deep and complex. But the design of the class is based on misdirection.


20 Alistair July 10, 2017 at 5:46 am

Well, that almost makes Tennis interesting. Almost.


21 Sourcreamus July 10, 2017 at 8:29 am

For the most part this is not true. The technology of racquets and strings means that at the professional level every one is hitting as much topspin as they can with almost every shot. If someone is hitting slice it is obvious from the motion.
Hearing the ball hit the strings is more important at lower levels where grunting is rare.


22 Neil July 10, 2017 at 9:47 am

Only a fan, but I agree with Sourcreamus. This idea that the sound of a “mishit or powerful shot” provides useful information seems inaccurate about professional-level tennis. Grunters like Rafa Nadal mishit the ball every once in a while, sure, but I can’t imagine more than, like, .5% of his points come from mishits.

It is possible, certainly, that the racket provides some sort of information about direction, etc., but the mishit in particular seems unlikely to be significant.


23 Carl Danner July 10, 2017 at 12:36 pm

Sure, outright mishits and the like are pretty rare among top players. But there are still differences in quality between different strokes, and I have to believe that the sound of contact remains useful as a source of information. Small differences in timing also matter, e.g. being a fraction of a second later in figuring out what’s coming at you can make a substantial difference if you need to move full-out to get in position and prepare your reply — especially given all the force needed to counter those big shots, and hopefully launch one in return,.

Remember as well that the competitive margins can be much finer at the highest levels, creating value for the potential to pick up even a key point or two.


24 Neil July 10, 2017 at 2:11 pm

Fair, but I thought that in your email, by pairing the tennis grunt idea with the table tennis deadball anecdote, you make it sound as if Nadal wins a lot of points by flubbing shots that then act as de facto drop shots. If that were the case, grunting would be close to universal.

In fact, even if the advantage gained is only marginal, I’d expect it to be universal. Perhaps it’s a tradeoff — perhaps Nadal does mask some shot information with his grunting, but, as the original study Tyler pointed to suggested, he betrays a bit of information about his physical state/level of confidence through those grunts as well, so that’s why not everyone grunts.


25 RM July 10, 2017 at 10:54 am

In Donald Trump’s head, many of his tweets. But, many of his attempts at misdirection fail. When they do, he adopts a strategy of deliberate confusion to make analyses of what he is saying difficult.


26 J July 10, 2017 at 11:55 am

Surprised no one has mentioned possibly the most common example of “misdirection”:


27 Anon_senpei July 10, 2017 at 12:42 pm

I always assumed that the grunts by female tennis stars were calculated ploys to build their brands as sex symbols.


28 Epiphyte July 10, 2017 at 1:04 pm

“But, and this is the point sensed by Wicksell but perhaps not fully appreciated by Lindahl, now it is in the selfish interest of each person to give false signals, to pretend to have less interest in a given collective consumption activity than he really has, etc.” — Paul Samuelson, The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure


29 Alvin July 10, 2017 at 7:10 pm

Simple solution. I turn off the TV or change the channel when they grunt because it’s so damn annoying to listen to.

The same with podcasts. If the speaker has a bad voice, I skip the talk, even if they might have something interesting to say. I’ve noticed it especially with younger people. They sound terrible.


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