Brian Viner: Sharapova emerges as the world's undisputed grunting champion

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After having a little fun a couple of columns ago at the expense of Radio 5 Live presenter Adrian Chiles - who promptly showed what a very good egg he is by e-mailing me and asking for my bank account details so that he could bribe me never again to mention his interview with the former Zimbabwean cricketer Eddo Brandes, which, like Brandes himself, went increasingly pear-shaped - it gives me pleasure to credit Chiles with a characteristically witty... I think the word is aperçu.

Why, he asked on his splendid show Chiles on Saturday, is Wimbledon, during the fortnight of the tennis championships, persistently referred to in the media as SW19, given that Wembley, for example, was never described as NW-something or other? It's a good point and I wish he'd explored it further. After all, SW19 contains twice as many syllables as Wimbledon, so it can hardly be called shorthand. That said, Lord's is sometimes referred to as NW8. Which reminds me of the London Underground version of the old teaser: which is the only Football League club to share no letters with the word "mackerel" (Swindon Town)? The only tube station to pass the same bizarre test is St John's Wood, apparently.

In (very) idle moments, I sometimes wonder who first worked that out. And more pertinently, why.

But let's get back to SW19. Via BN21 4EQ, rather better known as Devonshire Park, Eastbourne. I spent a few hours at the Hastings Direct tournament there last week, and it occurred to me as I wandered around that only a brothel could rival a women's tennis tournament in terms of the variety of loud noises of exertion to be heard.

At Wimbledon there will undoubtedly be a great deal more of the same, and if Eastbourne is anything to go by, I think we will find that the two-syllable grunt pioneered by Monica Seles - uh-UH! - is gathering precedence over the shorter but somehow more grunty grunt - uaaggh! - favoured by Andre Agassi. The men, of course, are fast becoming a real match for the women, grunting-wise. Guillermo Coria grunts for Argentina, Felix Mantilla for Spain. However, the undisputed world No 1 is currently the 16-year-old Russian Maria Sharapova, whose aaaewww! is not dissimilar to the noise made by a fox in distress, except that Sharapova is louder. At the DFS Classic tournament at Edgbaston the other week, she was asked by the umpire to pipe down - and that was the umpire on a neighbouring court.

The evolution of the tennis grunt, I think, could soon be worth a book.

Certainly the subject provoked a lively debate when I brought it up in the media centre at Eastbourne, with most experts in agreement that Jimmy Connors was, if not the grunt's first exponent, then probably the player who turned it into an accessory. The earliest recorded reference to the grunt that I can find is in a newspaper column by Clive James, dated 8 July 1979.

"Connors now grunts at the same time as he serves, instead of just afterwards," James wrote. "Since the grunt travels at the speed of sound, it arrives in the opponent's court marginally before the ball does. Ordinary opponents try to hit the grunt. Borg was not fooled. Indeed he quickly developed a Swedish counter-grunt. 'Hworf!' grunted Connors. 'Hworjf!' grunted Borg."

Nearly quarter of a century later, the grunt has become something players routinely take on court, like spare rackets and bananas. Its proliferation is largely down to several influential coaches, who taught their charges to exhale at the moment of impact. Defending his daughter from charges of excessive grunting, the late Karolj Seles used to explain that she was merely doing what martial arts enthusiasts did, letting rip with the vocal chords as an integral part of the physical manoeuvre.

But Ivan Lendl wasn't having any of that. Lendl - who evidently had what the Harry Potter of my childhood, the prep schoolboy Jennings, liked to call supersonic earsight - objected to the grunt on the basis that it obscured the sound of the ball leaving the strings. To return an opponent's shot, said Lendl, it helped to know what kind of spin had been imparted, and to know that you had to be able to hear the ball starting its journey. But then Lendl could be somewhat over-sensitive about such matters. When a new type of ball was unveiled for the 1988 Australian Open, he asked for it to be withdrawn, citing the hitherto unknown phenomenon of "logo skid".

It was ironic, therefore, that Lendl's first Grand Slam title, the 1984 French Open, was won thanks to the over-sensitivity of another. John McEnroe was leading by two sets to love when he allowed himself to become distracted by the noise of a courtside fridge, of all crazy things. He lost concentration, and with it the match. And subsequently ended his illustrious career without ever conquering Roland Garros - or 75016 as the French media don't like to call it.

My latest bank statement contains no record of a deposit by Adrian Chiles, so I think I'm still free to mention it.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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