Monday, March 24, 2008

Grunting with the Stars

As Monica Seles stumbles her way through Dancing with the Stars, unless she finds herself a compettive edge, she's likely not going to remain on the show much long.

Perhaps she should give a call to an old friend.

From this month's Men's Vogue

In the early 1990s, Monica Seles grunted her way to nine Grand Slam titles and became the game's top-ranked female player for two years running. At its peak, her ox-like bellow measured 93.2 decibels — not Sharapovian, but loud enough for the London tabloids to compare it to a freight train. This made Seles something of a pariah on the women's tour — Martina Navratilova once complained that Seles was making such a ruckus that she couldn't hear the ball come off the racket. What few people know is that Seles's grunting was not an unseemly habit but a deliberate competitive strategy, drilled into her by a sports psychologist named Jim Loehr.

Loehr, who is chairman and CEO of the Human Performance Institute in Orlando, Florida, is the father of tennis grunting. There had long been grunters on tour, players like Vicki Palmer and Jimmy Connors, but never before had the grunt been harnessed as a performance tool. Grunting helps to relax the muscles, Loehr claims, and prevents the kind of stiffness that results in "iron elbow" — which can cause a forehand to find its way into the net. Loehr met Seles in 1986, when she was a timid and polite 12-year-old, a condition that carried over into her game. Loehr encouraged her to breathe out forcefully — to grunt — and soon the pint-size Seles became a ferocious, swaggering player. As the trophies piled up, Seles unleashed her full inner grunter. "She felt so good that it became more and more vocal," Loehr told me recently. When noises of discontent emerged from what one Wimbledon referee would later dub the "counter-grunt culture," Seles turned down the volume. "The world says stop, then she stops and she loses three consecutive finals," Loehr says. Seles reported receiving anguished fan letters that read, "Monica, you've got to grunt again."

The nature of grunt-hating can be directly tied to Seles's lips. It turns out grunting is not just a case of poor etiquette, like belching at the dinner table or forgetting to wipe the sweat off the StairMaster. What underlies the Seles case — and that of the spate of recent grunters like Stuart Sugarman and Alex Rodriguez — is gamesmanship. Grunting is about exerting power. "The alpha ape was a grunter," says Samuel Davis, and while this conclusion requires more study, it looks like he's on to something.

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