Chris McGrath: Cries to stop the grunting get louder – but will they fall on deaf ears?
Saturday 20 June 2009
So now you are supposed to win a tennis tournament without a racket? Well, no. You can still use the type woven with catgut. But the sort of din associated with the live disembowelment of felines may no longer be tolerated.
Spectators of women's tennis, in particular, increasingly run the risk of perforated eardrums. The first – or primal – screamer was Monica Seles, but she could be readily indulged for an otherwise graceful nature. After all, Seles knew all too well how it feels to be attacked by a real, knife-wielding maniac, whereas nobody has ever seen the ones who seemingly appear before Maria Sharapova and the Williams sisters every time they strike the ball.
Opponents and spectators have come to view their caterwauling as an offensive distraction, suspecting downright gamesmanship. Those professing a cynicism of their own wonder if Sharapova, Serena and Venus have effectively been engaged in yet another kind of racket – knowing that their collective profile and achievement requires officialdom to tiptoe nervously around their self-regard.
If so, the regulators will perhaps be grateful for the emergence of a 16-year-old from Portugal named Michelle Larcher de Brito. As a relatively soft target, she has become the cue for what many – not least Martina Navratilova, who speaks candidly of "cheating" – consider overdue reform.
Up until now, those debating the phenomenon have tended to describe it as "grunting". Larcher de Brito shows that to be a wholly inadequate term. By all accounts, she is an extremely talented prospect, and as such has been granted a wild card at Wimbledon. But she may find members of the Noise Abatement Society issuing ear plugs not just to spectators, but to every household in SW19.
Some "grunters" have invoked the labour ward; others, banshees or light artillery. Sharapova, inevitably, has prompted more salacious analogies. As was evident at the Liverpool International Open this week, Larcher de Brito takes things to unprecedented, bloodcurdling extremes. Given a decent baseline rally, she could pulverise the Rock of Gibraltar. At the French Open, Aravane Rezai became so distressed by her opponent that she complained to the umpire, who issued an unofficial warning. If anything, it was Larcher de Brito who then became distracted, and she lost the match, but was booed off the court even so.
It is already possible for umpires to dock a point for "noise hindrance", but now consideration is being given to upgrading the offence so that even a match might be forfeited. And Wimbledon is thought the obvious place to restore a sense of etiquette, not to mention elegance, to the "ladies".
As it happens, some effort was made to stifle Seles there in 1992, and she proved uncharacteristically muted in losing the final. But the dilemma remains how to establish culpable intent. Some coaches tell youngsters that exhaling aggressively on the point of impact brings physiological and psychological benefits – a sense of control and timing, along with the extra power attributed to a tightened diaphragm in martial arts.
But athletes in other exacting sports seem to manage without this kind of vivid agony, while male tennis players have largely abjured the example of Jimmy Connors (who may well have feared that his game otherwise lacked machismo). Yet Sharapova is liable to approach 100 decibels in feathering a drop volley.
Navratilova points out that it is important to be able to hear the racket hit the ball, and that the inability to do so confers a corresponding tactical advantage. Bill Babcock, its Grand Slam director, has meanwhile traced fresh concern at the International Tennis Federation to the duration of Larcher de Brito's howls. "The noise extends into the hitting preparation time of her opponent," he noted.
Even without all this wailing, there is much gnashing of teeth on the women's tour, which is widely said to need renewal in both character and class. By the same token, no doubt, some of its bigger egos – its big noises, so to speak – perceive their vocation as spicing up the game's demure conventions with a bit of real life, a bit of urban gusto.
They probably enjoy the fuss, some of them. Like finding the next-door neighbour on the threshold, in miserable obedience to his spouse, groping for some bourgeois formula to request a little less volume in the bedroom. And nothing will improve until they recognise the situation as equally mortifying for both parties. Or, to put it another way: ENNNOUUUGH!
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