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How loud is a female tennis player's grunt?

Maria Sharapova apparently has the loudest grunt in women's tennis - as loud as a light aircraft apparently. If you are going to compare grunts, where should you take the measurement from?

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It has become traditional in women's tennis for players to grunt as they serve. Loudly.

Perhaps it is the sudden release of physical energy that triggers an acoustic response from the vocal chords. Or perhaps players are being coached in voice production as well as tennis, to put the other player off their game.

But the question is how loud is the grunt, in decibels?

One report, in the UK's Sunday Times - normally thought to be a reasonably reputable newspaper, puts Maria Sharapova's grunt at 100 decibels - "roughly the same volume as small aircraft landing nearby."

Now this betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of sound levels. It would make me wonder how reliable the reporting in this paper is on subjects that I'm not fortunate enough to understand so well.

Firstly, anything that creates a sound generates a certain amount of sound power. This is the total output from the source, taking into account all directions. The amount of sound power is intrinsic to the source, but the measured sound level, or sound pressure level, depends on the directional characteristics of the source, and on the distance from the sound source where the measurement is taken.

So to compare like with like, Sharapova's grunt should be measured from the opposite baseline, where the person most affected by it is receiving the serve. The aircraft should be measured from a point where someone is likely to hear it - perhaps an airport worker close to the runway. "Nearby" is not sufficient.

These two situations are so dissimilar it is pointless to make a comparison. Another factor is that Sharapova grunts sporadically during the game, the aircraft makes a continuous noise and then presumably either flies away into the distance or the engine is switched off. To compare the two isn't comparing like with like, so although readings could be taken with a sound pressure level meter, it wouldn't make anyone any the wiser for such knowledge.

But getting back to the tennis, I think it's time for serious measurements to be taken, from the baseline where it matters. Let's see who is the best grunter amongst the world's top women players - they don't need to be compared with anything else.

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By David Mellor Monday June 20, 2005
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