Kiai – The Battle Cry of Tennis

Lately there has been something fascinating happening in the tennis (“what, not Karate?“) community throughout the world.

Reports have been coming in, from near and far, that people are upset with players who are “grunting” when they hit the ball!

Grunting… we’ve had this in Karate for a long time.

“Grunting” in Karate can best be seen at a tournament, specifically in the Kata division. Every person grunts, or makes some kind of noise, along with their technique. And now, apparently, it has come to tennis.

Let’s see what they say about it in tennis, and how it relates to Karate, shall we? First of all, let’s begin with a brief timeline of grunting in tennis:

1974: Grunting pioneer Jimmy Connors wins first Wimbledon title.
1988: Ivan Lendl complains about Andre Agassi’s grunting at US Open.
1992: Monica Seles spoken to by officials at Wimbledon for excessive grunting.
2005: Maria Sharapova’s grunt reaches 101 decibels.
2009: Michelle Larcher de Brito receives unofficial warning at Roland Garros for excessive grunting.

So, as you can see, it is nothing new in the tennis world, really. But lately it is becoming the norm, just like in Karate competitions. That’s where the problem lies. But why grunt? And does it help?

Let’s look at some quotes:

“I’ve done this ever since I started playing tennis and I’m not going to change “

-Maria Sharapova

“Maybe I can eventually put it under control. I don’t know, but I’ll try. It comes from Seles; it comes from Sharapova. It comes from great players “

– Michelle Larcher de Brito

“Breathing all the time and making noise can take your energy but overall it does help “

-Nick Bollettieri

Now, that last quote is good. Because…

Making noise just for the sake of making noise is no good. It is a waste of energy and makes the whole performance look strange and artificial. But if it comes out as a side effect of your technique (that you have put all of your energy in) then it is nothing strange, it is natural.

The problem appears when people make noise for the sake of making noise. Why do they do that?

In tennis, apart from being a way to psych out the opponent, the answer is quite interesting:

Martina Navratilova (winner of 59 Grand Slam titles and a non-grunter) believes it’s a diversionary tactic. She recently said that grunting was a “form of cheating and should be banned, because it masks the sound of the ball on the racket – something that top opponents read to their advantage.”

That’s remarkable. So top tennis players grunt to mask the sound of the ball on the racket, making it hard for the opponent to read the direction/force etc of the ball.

It is tactic.

In Karate tournaments, something similar is going on. The excessive noise that some competitors make is also used for masking… but unlike tennis, it is not used for masking another sound. It is used for enhancing techniques, making up for (masking) lack of good technique. Just think about it for a second: Who would the judges vote for, between “person A” who lacks skill and is completely quiet in his kata performance, or “person B” who also lacks skill, but sounds like he is straight out of a Bruce Lee movie?

There is a saying in the judges community that “a good judge should close his ears” but we all know this is impossible. Even if they don’t want to, they will be influenced by the grunting/hissing/barking sound of “competitor B”. They will feel he is better somehow, but they don’t really know why.

They have been influenced by the grunts.

So it is a tactic. Like in tennis.

Okay, so excessive breathing and grunting is one thing, but what about true, real, actual breathing? It is an important part of Karate, we mustn’t forget that.

Let’s look at tennis again:

Nick Bollettieri (seen by many as the world’s top tennis coach) says real grunting is natural, not planned. And I tend to agree.

“I prefer to use the word ‘exhaling’. I think that if you look at other sports, weightlifting or doing squats or a golfer when he executes the shot or a hockey player, the exhaling is a release of energy in a constructive way”

“If you hold your lips tightly, you’re not breathing and you become very tense and less flexible so you get tight more quickly. It [loud breathing] relaxes and releases energy.”

That’s how it should be. You just squeeze every last piece of energy out of your body with a sharp exhale. Nothing more, nothing less.

But this, of course, requires you to be at the level where you need it. And here is where the problem arises. If you are nowhere near using 100% effort in a technique, grunting won’t help you. It only makes it harder. That’s why it is so weird to see beginners, or kids, grunt.

They don’t even know why they do it. They just look at other people, and simply copy.

It looks really strange…

I think we should all follow the advice of former British number one in tennis, Jo Durie, who thinks making noise has it’s place, although it can be done more quietly:

“It should be more like a breath coming out, without a noise attached. It does help to exhale as you’re going to hit the ball because everything builds up and is then released when you hit the ball.”

That could have come from a Karate coach! Let’s just make a small change:

“It should be more like a breath coming out, without a noise attached. It does help to exhale as you’re going to hit the ball opponent because everything builds up and is then released when you hit the ball opponent”

Looks much better.

And lastly:

“We tell juniors when they strike the ball just to make a slight noise to help with their timing.
It makes them concentrate on the timing of the stroke and gets the breath out of the body.”

I think that’s how we should do it, and teach it, in Karate too.


  • deera bazooka
    yuppp that's true. kiai is very, very important :-D
  • sunrei
    not kiai, but releasing everything to the opponent, i do understand now(finally lol) why i hate kiai: cause its empty, without the efforts of the whole ... jesse thx for this one :bow:
  • Usdating
    Great done and keep posted. Looking forward to reading more from you.
  • Taya
    In my association you can get disqualified for grunting/making excessive or unessesary breathing sounds during kata competition. Though when I compete in WKF competitions it is unusual not to grunt/ breath heavily.

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