Despite the tradition-steeped pageantry this week when many of the world's tennis stars take the court in Queens, N.Y., the athletes' experiences may be quite distant from their predecessors' polite volleys in the championship first contested more than 125 years ago. U.S. Open fans will see players sporting sophisticated shoes and rackets with high-tech strings—and, perhaps unfittingly, also hear barbaric battle cries. (With some players now grunting at more than 100 decibels, they may very well be heard as far as Brooklyn.) To what extent are these changes putting players at a greater advantage? Is tennis going the way of swimming with technology making the difference between love and match?
One of the first things a fan will notice—after their eyes adjust to the players' flashy attire—is that the tennis shoe is no longer just a generic name for a sports shoe. In fact, that specificity now goes a lot further. Nike, for example, recently created individualized tennis shoes for rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. A company representative explained in an e-mail to The New York Times: "Roger's playing style consists of nimble footwork that is forefoot intensive, and a style of play that covers the entire court, while Rafa [Nadal] is a more explosive player with a more heel-focused game consisting of primarily lateral movements on the baseline." The unique designs reflect these heel and toe differences.
While their feet may be adorned with different interpretations of the tennis shoe, both stars will swing rackets laced with luxilon, a popular new polyester string. "Luxilon has changed the game so much," Rodney Harmon, a former tour player who now works for the United States Tennis Association told the U.K.'s Guardian. "Guys can move back on returns and take huge swipes. The ball spins like a gyroscope and it's almost too difficult to volley." Rick Macci, a top U.S. Coach, added to the Guardian's report: "Rackets now are like AK-47s. Everybody is hitting the ball harder and heavier." Some observers feel this gives power players like Nadal an extra edge over the finesse play of those like Federer.
The growth of grunting may be an even more apparent change to the sport. "Grunting is a natural outgrowth of this new power game—a kind of advertisement of tennis's beefed-up sport-ness," reports the Boston Globe. "Muscles, velocity, and noise have brought tennis closer to other sports in its celebration of the physical. Grunting demonstrates a kind of effort. It is the sound of work."
Could this also be partially contributing to those increasingly powerful serves and volleys? Just as weight lifters can release loud groans as they raise the bar over their head, a forced exhalation of air may also aid the release of tension in tennis. Dennis O'Connell, a professor of physical therapy at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, found that college tennis players sped up their serves by an average of 4.7 miles per hour when they grunted, according to Canada's National Post. (The players involved in the research grunted at an average of 73 decibels; some professional female tennis players surpass the 100-decibel mark, about as loud as a chainsaw.)
But, to purists, this natural noise may be even more unfair than the advancing of racket technologies. According to the Globe, tennis great Martina Navratilova complained about a number of modern developments, including high-tech rackets, but it was "grunting that really boiled her blood." She told the Globe that certain players' grunts disorient their opponents as they prepare to hit a return. "It is cheating, pure and simple," she said.
So where should tennis draw the line? While Hawkeye technology is now aiding umpires in line calls, there seem to be plenty more court controversies for players to break (or make) a racket over.
Picture of Roger Federer by Perunotas TV via Flickr