BRIGHTON, England — As Wimbledon enters its second week, it’s anyone’s guess which man and woman will walk away with arguably the most sought-after title in the sport of tennis. If you’re dead set on making a prediction though, a new study finds all you’ll need to do is turn up the volume and pay close attention to the grunts of the players.
For years, grunting has become a hallmark for many tennis greats. Monica Seles, Venus Williams, and Jimmy Connors are just a few names that come to mind when discussing the noisiest legends, but it turns out there might be something to those grunts after all, especially when it comes to the outcomes of the matches.
Researchers from the University of Sussex found that tennis players release grunts in a higher pitch during matches they lost compared to their grunts given off in their victories. In fact, the authors were able to accurately predict the winners of matches early on by measuring the pitch (referred to as “fundamental frequency” or “F0”) of players’ grunts, well before it was clear who would walk away the winner.
The interesting finding was discovered when the authors analyzed video of 50 matches played by some of the athletes ranked among the top 30 in the world. The researchers measured the F0 of grunts the players made on serves and during basic groundstrokes, while noting the various points in the matches when the grunts were let out, and how the player fared.
Jordan Raine, a doctoral researcher who is also one of the study’s authors (and captain of the tennis team school’s tennis team), explains that the pitch level was consistent with the outcome of the match, even from the very start and despite the number of grunts increasing during sets.
“This suggests that this shift in pitch is not due to short-term changes in scoreboard dominance, but instead, may reflect longer term physiological or psychological factors that may manifest even before the match,” he says in a press release. “These factors could include previous encounters, form, world ranking, fatigue, and injuries.”
Grunts could also be an assistant of sorts to players who can identify an opponents “winning” grunt versus the pitch during a loss. The team found that tennis players could actually distinguish on their own between grunts made by a player during a victory and those made by the same player during a loss.
“Playbacks revealed that listeners use grunt F0 to infer sex and contest outcome. These findings indicate that tennis grunts communicate information about both the vocalizer and contest,” the authors wrote.
The researchers hope that the study will open the doors to learning more about other sounds that humans make, such as a shriek of fear.
The study was published in the August 2017 edition of the journal Animal Behavior.