Victoria Heinicke, tennis' first grunter - Notes on the evolution of grunting -
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post #1 of 3 (permalink) Old Dec 1st, 2011, 08:12 PM Thread Starter
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Victoria Heinicke, tennis' first grunter - Notes on the evolution of grunting

Victoria Heinicke (then Victoria Palmer) in action in the early 1960s

Novak Djokovic's four-set win over Rafael Nadal in Monday's U.S. Open final was brutal, lengthy, and loud. As Nadal strained to match Djokovic's power and precision, the long rallies became metronomic: forehand, groan, backhand, groan, forehand, groan. Sometimes Djokovic would join in, too, creating a grunt-to-grunt rally to parallel the one with the ball and rackets.

Nadal, Djokovic, Andy Murray, Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova—nearly every top player grunts or groans or shrieks. It wasn't always that way. In the middle of the 20th century, tennis was a pretty quiet game. Then a teenage girl—a player at the sport's highest level for just a few years—came along and ended tennis' silent era.

Though the history of grunting in tennis is sketchy, there's rough agreement on when the phenomenon began. Bud Collins, the 82-year-old dean of tennis journalism, says he first heard an on-court grunt in the 1960s. In a 1984 Sports Illustrated story, now-deceased tennis player, spy, and fashion designer Ted Tinling told Frank Deford that grunting hit the sport in 1959.

Though Tinling didn't name names, Collins has said multiple times that the first grunter he can remember was a junior player from Arizona named Vicki Palmer. Contemporaneous accounts support this claim. A 1962 SI piece on the National Singles Championships at Forest Hills, N.Y., which later became the U.S. Open, mentions "a number of dramatic upsets, including … Wimbledon champion Karen Hantze Susman by 17-year-old Vicki Palmer—indelicately nicknamed The Grunter." (That 1962 tournament also featured "one Hugh Sweeney, who may quite possibly be the last man ever to play tournament tennis in long white flannel pants.")

Sports Illustrated chronicled Palmer's many triumphs in those years. She first appeared in the magazine in 1957, when "the 12-year-old mite who stands not quite 5 feet tall scampered off with three trophies in [the] Arizona Tennis Open." A year later, the "13-year-old tennis power" won the national under-15 tournament. In 1959, the magazine reported that she "is strong, plays an excellent backcourt game and has apparently overcome an indifference toward victory." Four years hence, SI documented her upset of Billie Jean Moffitt (the soon-to-be Billie Jean King) in the quarterfinals of the national clay court championships. That was the last time Palmer's name appeared in SI. What happened to The Grunter, and why did she start grunting in the first place?

I tracked down the 66-year-old Victoria Palmer Heinicke in Colorado Springs, Col., where she's a retired tech support consultant. (Though the papers referred to her as Vicki, Heinicke says she's always preferred Victoria.) Heinicke says she can't recall anybody ever interviewing her about how she changed the sound of tennis. "The top players grunted occasionally, but I was the only one who did it consistently," she says.

Heinicke learned tennis from her father in Arizona, starting at four-and-a-half. For as long as she can remember, she grunted when she hit the ball. It's not a genetic thing—none of her five brothers and sisters grunted when they played tennis. And she didn't grunt—as Heinicke remembers tennis legend Maureen "Little Mo" Connolly theorizing as a television commentator—because her father had coached her on how to expel air more efficiently. "The reason I grunted was that it was the way I breathe[d] when I hit the ball," she says.

What did the legendary grunt sound like? Collins tells me that "it was loud, and it was kind of startling." According to Heinicke, it wasn't high-pitched like Michelle Larcher de Brito's screech, and it wasn't as extended as Victoria Azarenka's tea-kettle whistle. Heinicke says her grunt was compact, a low-register thud as she hit the ball and followed through. In search of a modern analogue, she compares her grunting style to that of hard-hitting Spanish baseliner David Ferrer.

Some tennis players claim that grunting helps them hit harder, although it could be the reverse: The more effort you put into your swing, the deeper (and louder) your exhalation. Either way, Heinicke was known as a hard-hitter. The former junior star says she hit quite forcefully for the wooden-racket era—former world No. 5 Julie Heldman, who played against Heinicke, confirms that "she could slug the ball"—and believes the effort she expended on each stroke accounted for her noisemaking.

While Heinicke's proto-grunting was a topic of conversation among her fellow players, it was never all that controversial. Tennis Hall of Famer Nancy Richey, who beat Heinicke to win 1963's national clay court championships, says that though most of her contemporaries made a bit of noise, Heinicke "was probably the loudest." Still, Richey says "it wasn't anything you would complain about," explaining that her contemporary's decibel level doesn't compare to today's piercing shrieks. In fact, she found her opponent's grunting beneficial. "You know she's doing it at the moment of contact with the ball," Richey says. "In a sense, it helps your timing."

Only one time, Heinicke says, did her grunting almost get her into trouble. One year, in advance of Wimbledon, a player who she had faced many times (and who she declines to name) asked the tournament referee to stop her from grunting. Heinicke thinks it was probably gamesmanship—a ploy to mess with her head. The referee denied the request, the grunter and the complainer didn't end up facing each other, and Heinicke never changed her sound.

Heinicke's career came to an early end, though her retirement had nothing to do with noise. At the age of 18, she skipped Forest Hills and Wimbledon and enrolled at the University of Arizona, which didn't have a women's tennis team. (She practiced with the men.) Soon after, she got married, and had her first child when she was 19. At that point, she stopped playing competitive tennis.

In the early 1960s, top women's players got their rackets for free, but there was no prize money at the national singles championships or the junior nationals. Traveling across the country for tournaments was an expensive, unappealing proposition for Heinicke and her young family. "Gladys Heldman and Billie Jean King started women's pro tennis, and that was a very difficult life," she says. "They were on the road and traveling across the country on buses. That was not something that I wanted to do."

After Heinicke left the sport, the best players of the 1970s—Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, Andrea Jaeger, and Jimmy Connors—nurtured grunts of their own. As the grunts grew more forceful, so did the calls to press the mute button. In 1981, an umpire at Wimbledon asked Connors—whose on-court growl fit in with his blue-collar image—to tone it down. "I told him there was nothing I could do and he could only default me," Connors told reporters after the match, adding derisively that "I am grunting well this year." Connors was not defaulted, making this the first in a long series of ineffectual pleas for comprehensive grunting reform.

The terrain shifted in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the Nick Bollettieri-schooled Monica Seles and Andre Agassi pumped up the volume. Ted Tinling once referred to Seles' grunt as sounding "like a Christmas goose being strangled to death." Others compared it to a "grunt right out of a pig sty" or "the wail of strangled bagpipes." It wasn't just the press and Wimbledon officials who complained—Seles and Agassi drew increasing ire from their sonically terrorized opponents.

At Wimbledon in 1992—the genteel All England Club has often served as the sport's noise battleground —Martina Navratilova twice groused to the chair umpire about Seles' grunting during their semifinal match. While Nancy Richey says that Heinicke's grunts helped with her timing, Navratilova argued that Seles' louder wails prevented her from hearing ball hit racket. (A recent study, which found that grunts slowed down opponents' reaction time, backs Navratilova's point.) Navratilova also complained that Seles' intonation changed throughout the match. In that sense, the Seles sound was arguably a hindrance—something akin to the distracting "Come on!" of Serena Williams.

"There were two or three points when I said, Monica, don't grunt, don't grunt," Seles said after her match against Navratilova, explaining why she couldn't quiet down. "But you know, it's such a tense match." Stung by Navratilova's criticism and the mockery of the London tabloids' "Grunt-o-Meters," Seles forced herself to play the Wimbledon final against Steffi Graf in eerie silence. In her autobiography, Seles says this decision is "one of the only things I've regretted in my life." Though she'd just beaten her German rival to win the French Open, this time Seles was routed 6-2, 6-1. A short time later, Seles ended her brief grunt interregnum, and she trounced Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario to win the U.S. Open. (A few months after that, Seles was stabbed on the court by a madman. She won just one more grand slam title.)

Heinicke says Seles' struggles during her quiet period are easy to understand. "I wouldn't have been able to play, bottom line, if they had banned grunting," she says. "That's how I hit the ball. And I'd say that a lot of the tennis players [now] wouldn't be able to stop [either]."

Though she says today's louder, shriller players don't bother her, it's telling that Heinicke compared her grunt to that of David Ferrer. The game's earliest grunters, both men and women, sounded like today's male players, emitting a guttural unnngh upon making contact with the ball. The Sharapova and Azarenka screams sound less natural and less necessary. Bud Collins believes referees should use the hindrance rule—the regulation that cost Williams a point when she screamed against Samantha Stosur—to penalize the loudest grunters. Nancy Richey suggests that tennis implement an official, London-tabloid-esque Grunt-o-Meter and punish players who cross a noise threshold. Her suggested outer limit: "as loud as a lawnmower."

Along with Richey, retired greats Evert and Navratilova have both spoken out about the game's rising noise level, with the latter saying that grunting "is cheating, pure and simple." It's no coincidence that Navratilova was the one to call out Seles: By 1992, she was 35 years old, a relic from a more peaceful age. Serena Williams, by contrast, grew up idolizing Seles. "I loved her game. I loved her grunt," Williams told's Darren Rovell in 2005. "So my grunt is kind of like hers a little bit, where it's like a double-grunt." Since most of this generation's top pros grew up grunting, they have no incentive to end the shrieking era. From their perspective, a noise ban would be mutually assured destruction.

For her part, Heinicke doesn't believe today's lawnmower sounds are her legacy. "When I was young I did well," she says, "and it had nothing to do with my grunting." Besides, even the loudest grunters bug her less than players who stall between points—back when she played, nobody even sat down during changeovers. The other major difference between tennis then and now: television. The same equipment that allows viewers to hear racket hit ball also amplifies whatever sounds come out of the players' mouths. "When I played the microphones never picked up my grunting," she told me via email. "We have come a long way electronically!!!"

Victoria Heinicke (then Victoria Palmer) in the early 1960s

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post #2 of 3 (permalink) Old Dec 5th, 2011, 01:16 PM
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Re: Victoria Heinicke, tennis' first grunter - Notes on the evolution of grunting

Thank you for your great find Spiceboy

Gotta love those pics with the swaying skirts-and now we have another trivia question answered about who the first grunter in the game was!

Last edited by Rollo; Apr 1st, 2016 at 02:03 AM.
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post #3 of 3 (permalink) Old Apr 1st, 2016, 02:06 AM
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Re: Victoria Heinicke, tennis' first grunter - Notes on the evolution of grunting

from: CP: What's That Noise? | General News - News | USTA Southwest

What’s That Noise?
An Arizona native, the first to make sounds when she played, has a good deal to say about screeching on the tennis court.

September 10, 2012

After I watched the televised match of a women’s semifinal singles at this year’s U.S. Open I felt ready for a cochlear implant.

I love women’s tennis, but I do not like the incessant guttural howls that so many female players insist on making when they strike a ball.

Though I am quite capable of poking the mute button on my remote, I want to listen to the commentators. Make that some of the commentators.

The women’s semifinal between Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka at this year’s Open turned into an all-out screamfest. The audio for the two and one-half hour match could have come straight from "Saw VI." Or was that "Saw III"? I can never keep them straight.

When I turned the sound three-quarters of the way down, I could still faintly hear blood-curdling, hair-curling, please-don’t-bury-me-alive screeching. I turned the sound back up—some of the time.

Where oh where did such horrific noisemaking begin? To most authorities, that answer lies in the 1950s, and a young Arizona junior named Vicki Palmer. Today, Vicki Palmer is Victoria Heinicke, who has lived in Colorado since 1964. Counterpuncher caught up with her by telephone at her home in Colorado Springs.

"Watching Sharapova and Azarenka didn’t bother me," Heinicke said. "If you’re a very good player, you should be able to tune everything out. Of course, I don’t think my grunting was anything like what goes on today."

Heinicke was born in Phoenix in 1945 and raised there. Following World War II, her father, Paul Vincent Palmer, a surgeon turned general practitioner, decided to take up tennis.

"He didn’t want to compete," Heinicke recalled. "He wanted to teach tennis to his six children."

They called her ‘The Grunter’

Dr. Palmer bought an instruction book by Bill Tilden for 50 cents. Each morning he batted balls to his children on a patio in the back yard. He constructed a fence to block errant shots.

From the very beginning, Heinicke grunted when she played. Not a scream, not a howl. Just a small, effort-resulting exhalation.

"It came naturally to me. My siblings who played tennis didn’t do it, so I clearly wasn’t taught to grunt."

Eventually the family joined the Phoenix Country Club. Paul Pelliza, a big, sturdy member of the French Davis Cup team, taught tennis there during the late 1940s and ’50s. The Palmer kids got lessons from Pelliza as they grew up. Heinicke says her older brother, Paul, who eventually became a fine player in his own right, and older sister Patsy would pass along tips to her. But so would a lot of famous players who came to Phoenix.

Said Heinicke, "We ended up changing our grips a lot and strokes a lot depending on who was working with us."

Before she was 12 years old, Heinicke had hit with the following visitors to the Phoenix Country Club: Bill Tilden, Alice Marble, Tony Trabert, Jack Kramer, Mary Hardwick Hare and Doris Hart. None of that roster of tennis greats remarked on her grunts, according to Heinicke.

At age 13, Heinicke entered the women’s singles at the Phoenix Thunderbird Tournament, then a big-deal event that drew entrants from afar. She took a set off the celebrated Louise Brough, 22 years her senior, and another set off Beverly Baker Fleitz, 15 years older.

A baseliner who hit terrifically hard, Heinicke at 14 won the Thunderbird.

"I never thought it especially remarkable that so many big names came to Phoenix," she said. "You have to realize the tennis community in Arizona in those days was really small. These visitors were there to see Pierre. He was very likeable."

Eventually she moved on to the Paradise Valley Racquet Club, where they called her "The Grunter."

As a junior, Heinicke truly made her mark. She won the Southwestern Women’s Singles in 1958 when she was 13, the USLTA Girls 15 Grass Court Doubles twice, the USLTA Girls 18 Hardcourt Singles twice and the USLTA Girls 18 Grass Court Singles once.

As well as his daughter did on the tennis court, Dr. Palmer could not watch her matches.

"He would just get too nervous," Heinicke remembered.

She played in the National Singles at Forest Hills, now the U.S. Open when, when she was 14 and competed there a couple of more times after that.

Though she was at the top of her game, 1962 was the last year she played tournament tennis. She lost in the round of 16 at Wimbledon to Ann Haydon-Jones and fell in the semis at Forest Hills to Darlene Hard.

She earned a No. 7 women’s singles ranking in the U.S. that year, when that basically equated to being one of the top handful of players in the world.

Leaving Arizona behind

At age 18, Heinicke graduated from Xavier High School in Phoenix and enrolled at the University of Arizona. She lost to Nancy Richey in the finals of the U.S. Clay Courts, but beat Billie Jean King, then Billie Jean Moffitt, in the quarters of that tournament.

The following year she was pregnant and eventually eloped. "I told only two people: My mother and the dress designer Teddy Tinling." Tinling was there to let out her tennis dresses.

Her tournament days may have ended, but not her tennis. When Heinicke relocated to Colorado, she began teaching adults and children at the Cheyenne Mountain High School summer program. She coached for a year at the Colorado Springs School, a private school, and then taught for eight years at the Colorado Springs Racquet Club. She is in the Colorado Tennis Hall of Fame.

She retired after spending 20 years in the computer technology field.

Wrist surgery in 1994 put her tennis on the sideline for good. She keeps up with the sport, paying particular interest to the noisemaking issue. Ted Tinling, she said, identified her as the first to noticeably grunt while playing. Bud Collins has since supported that tennis footnote.

"Most of the players at that time—men and women both—grunted, but not all the time," she said. "The difference between them and me was that I grunted on every stroke."

She cannot recollect anyone complaining about her grunting. "If it was mentioned, it was said to be gamesmanship." Nancy Richey said the grunting helped her get ready for Heinicke’s next shot.

Over the last few years, WTA officials have frequently discussed a ban on grunting. "Martina Navratilova is very much against grunting," Heinicke said. "She thinks that if you can change strokes, you should be able to stop grunting. But if you have done it all your tennis life, and it’s natural, it’s not easy to stop."

Is grunting the same as screaming? "Not at all," Heinicke said. "My grunt came from physical exertion. When I grunted, I did it the moment I hit the ball. It was never extended from before to after I stroked the ball, as players do today. And I didn’t scream that I know of. It’s my understanding that the WTA wants to set a decibel limit on grunts and screams. When it gets past a particular loudness, the player will be penalized."

In the meantime, I plan to continue watching and listening—some of the time.

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