Never has there been such a first-day gathering of the Fourth Estate in the unfashionable environs of Court 17, at least not for a match with no British interest. But the grunt correspondents were out in force yesterday, not so much to see as to hear the girl touted as the loudest thing to hit Wimbledon since Vinnie Jones found someone breaking into his car.
But Michelle Larcher de Brito was a huge disappointment, aurally speaking. The 16-year-old from Lisbon suppressed the shrieks that supposedly all but shook the foundations of Roland Garros at this year's French Open, and this grunt correspondent trailed glumly away, reflecting that her Czech opponent Klara Zakapalova might more fittingly have been called Wotapalava. Still, on the upside, the girl can play. She cruised to a fairly comfortable straight sets win over her 27-year-old opponent, 6-2, 7-5 and it's reasonable to assume that, in more ways than one, we haven't heard the last of her.
In the meantime she has unwittingly done the sport a favour by reviving the noise debate. In the words of the esteemed coach Nick Bollettieri, whose celebrated academy in Florida, where young Larcher de Brito has been nurtured, also produced other noteworthy noise-merchants in Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova, her extraordinary emissions have now elevated the issue "from a whisper to a roar". Martina Navratilova is pre-eminent among those labelling the banshees as cheats, rejecting the claim (as does Bollettieri) that the shrieks, wails, howls and grunts have been coached into them, as a way of encouraging a release of explosive energy at the moment of impact between racket and ball.
Even if this were so, the noise can manifestly prove disruptive for their opponents, not to mention people trying to grab a bit of kip on deckchairs in nearby Wimbledon Park. Navratilova considers it worse than mere gamesmanship. And there is a further dimension to the cheating charge, because some players listen carefully to the sound a ball makes off their opponent's racket strings, instantly knowing if a shot has been slightly mis-hit, for example, and reacting accordingly. It's hard to hear the ping of a ball if there's a plane taking off on the other side of the net. And improbable as it sounds, the decibel count of Larcher de Brito's shrieks is not far short of that of an aircraft. Following yesterday's match, the teenager insisted that she had not deliberately kept quiet as a result of all the criticism, nor had All-England Club officials asked her to do so. If she'd needed to make a noise, she added with commendable defiance for one so young, she would have done. "The grunt goes through my intensity," she said, adding that it has unfairly deflected attention from her actual strokeplay. "Nobody realised I beat No 15 in the world, Jie Zheng, in the second round of Roland Garros at 16," she complained. "People haven't realised the sacrifices and everything I've done."
As for the cheating charge, it doesn't wash when there are shriekers on both sides of the net, as was the case in the Court One encounter between Sharapova and the Ukrainian, Viktoriya Kutuzova. The latter seems to have modelled herself on the 2004 champion, right down to the white visor, the swishing pony-tail, the little skip before serving, and of course the shriek. The only difference is that sometimes Kutuzova launches herself at the ball but doesn't shriek, which may in itself be a strategy to discombobulate the opponent. Football was Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle's sport, not tennis, but it might be recalled that Sherlock Holmes once alerted a Scotland Yard detective to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time. "The dog did nothing in the night time," the detective replied. "That," said Holmes, "is the curious incident." In other words, silence is sometimes more significant than noise. Sharapova should try it too. She might find her opponents complaining.
Whatever, her seeding of 24 here reflects the recent problems she has had with form and fitness, and they were evident on Court One as she strugged with her line and length, quickly going 1-4 down. With Kutuzova beginning to envisage her passage into the second round, the shrieks were bouncing back and forth no less than the ball. But shrieks come in different shapes and sizes. Another of the modern game's most impressive proponents, the No 8 seed Victoria Azarenka, was in action on Court 3 yesterday, and the consensus among the grunt correspondents was that hers sound like sneezes, as if she is suffering badly from hay fever. In the event her much quieter French opponent Severine Bremond Beltrame retired with a knee injury, and Azarenka will be joined in the second round by Sharapova, who eventually prevailed 7-5, 6-4.
Up with the jets: Just how loud can Larcher get?
Larcher de Brito's 'grunt' has been registered at 109 decibels, but how does she compare with other sounds?
15 decibels pin drop
60 Normal conversation
70 Busy traffic; a crowded restaurant – constant exposure to noise of 70 decibels can cause hearing problems
80 Freight train (15m away)
100 Jet at 300ft; motorcycle; jackhammer; average full volume on a stereo system
101 Maria Sharapova
108 Rock concert
109 Larcher de Brito
– the human body feels vibrations at 116 decibels
118 Turbo-fan aircraft at 200ft
130.7 Liverpool supporters at 2005 League Cup Final (world record for 'loudest stadium roar')
133 Average gunshot
150 Loud enough to rupture eardrums
180 Rocket Launch