For years, the party line from WTA players has been that grunting doesn't matter. The women almost universally stuck to their story that while an opponent's loud grunt or shriek was noticeable, they preferred to focus on their side of the net and tune it out.
But the rhetoric has changed over the last year, as the chorus of complaints from fans and broadcasters has grown louder and the WTA has been forced to take the issue more seriously. Now the Tour's top-ranked player has come out and voiced her concerns over the "habit," or if you believe Caroline Wozniacki, it's more of a "tactic."
In an interview with The Guardian, Wozniacki hit out against the grunters, effectively saying that it's a form of gamesmanship.
"I think there are some players who do it on purpose," she said. "They don't do it in practice and then they come into the match and they grunt. I think [officials] could definitely cut it."
Of course, the most notable grunters on Tour are Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, both of whom grunt not only at contact but also through the hit, often continuing their wail as opponents are prepping their shot. Serena and Venus Williams are also culprits. While the sisters don't grunt on every shot (and in fact have played matches in complete silence), their tendency to unleash a grunt often coincides with tense and crucial moments in a match.
"If you grunt really loudly, your opponent cannot hear how you hit the ball," Wozniacki said. "Because the grunt is so loud, you think the ball is coming fast and suddenly the ball just goes slowly. In tight moments, maybe the grunt helps them with getting less nervous."
WTA CEO Stacey Allaster has acknowledged the problem, though she is right to point out that the men grunt too (see Rafael Nadal, for example). "Unfortunately, our decibels are a little bit higher [than the men's]," Allaster said during the Rogers Cup in August. "Our DNA is different."
It's a touchy thing for the Tour to regulate because the complaints can reek of sexism. Whenever someone complains that a woman's grunting doesn't comport with proper tennis decorum, it can sound like code for charging someone with "unladylike behavior."
But if the practice is turning away fans from the sport, the Tour has to sit up and take notice. And as Allaster notes, it has to be dealt with when players are young.
"I'm very focused on the fans and I have seen a slight increase in the fan comments that we're receiving," Allaster told The Guardian. "So I do think on that basis that we should look at it. And if we're going to make any changes, it needs to [start] with the junior players."
Allaster said the WTA will be visiting the Bollettieri Academy in Florida in the offseason to meet with coaches and players to discuss the issue. It's no surprise that Bollettieri's is on the short list of academies of concern. It was the home of Sharapova, and Nick Bollettieri has consistently defended grunting as a form of exhaling through a shot.