Tennis takes action against grunters (but it's too late to silence Sharapova)

Paul Newman
Sunday 30 October 2011 23:48

Wimbledon has asked the professional game to do something about it, Michael Stich once called it "disgusting, ugly, unsexy", while world No 1 Caroline Wozniacki says it can adversely affect an opponent and that some players do it deliberately. With spectators and television viewers increasingly put off by the grunting and shrieking of several female players, the Women's Tennis Association is seeking to reduce the decibel levels on court.

Stacey Allaster, chairman and chief executive of the body that runs the women's tour, revealed at the season-ending WTA Championships in Istanbul that young players are to be targeted. One of the first moves will be to talk to juniors at Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida, which has produced some of the game's noisiest players – although Mr Bollettieri insists he and his coaches have never encouraged players to grunt.

Ms Allaster said the WTA had noticed a "slight increase" in fans' complaints about grunting. "On that basis, we should look at it," she said. "The athletes of today have trained their entire lives and prepared to compete the way they do. So [we need] some education with the juniors. We're working with the International Tennis Federation. Our team will go down to Bollettieri's and meet coaches and young players."

Grunting had been "part of our sport for years", Ms Allaster said, but improved technology had made television viewers in particular more aware of it. "There are more microphones out there, there's digital-quality of sound and it is amplified," she said. "Grunting is a normal part of our sport. The guys are grunting as well. But our female DNA transmits it in a different way."

While there are men who grunt – Rafael Nadal is a notable groaner – it is the pitch of the noise made by some of the women that has particularly grated with fans. Victoria Azarenka, the world No 4 from Belarus, lets out high-pitched wails, each of which can last a second and a half, while former Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova's grunt is more like a shriek or a scream.

Sharapova trained at the Bollettieri academy, as did nine-time grand slam winner Monica Seles, one of the earliest of the modern grunters. Portuguese player Michelle Larcher de Brito, who at 18 is one of the youngest of today's screamers, is also a Bollettieri product.

Grunters usually say the noise comes naturally to them, as part of their action in hitting a shot. But the normally easy-going Wozniacki – who is not a grunter – does not believe that is always the case. "I think there are some players who do it on purpose," the Dane said. "They don't do it in practice, they come in the match and they grunt. I think they could definitely cut it. I don't mind doing a bit of grunting or something if it's natural, or like Rafa grunting because he's putting the effort in."

Wozniacki, who was playing her opening match at the WTA Championships last night against Agnieszka Radwanska, said grunting can give players an advantage. "If you grunt really loudly, your opponent cannot hear the ball, cannot hear how you hit it," she said. "It's a little bit different because you think the grunt is so loud, you think the ball is coming fast and suddenly the ball just goes like this [slowly]."

"Grunting can definitely be a little bit disturbing, especially for the crowd. I've had a lot of people come up to me and say, 'It's not really nice. We always turn the volume off'. That's not what you want to hear."

Making a racquet: The four biggest culprits

Serena Williams

As if the sight of Williams belting the ball was not scary enough for opponents, the former world No 1 can also let out an intimidating howl when under pressure. She once remarked that the noise "didn't affect her at all". Her opponents might feel differently.

Annoyance rating 3/5

Decibels 90

Maria Sharapova

The "Queen of Scream" says she has made the noise ever since she started playing the game. "This question only comes up at Wimbledon," she once said. "I'm not going to change." Her scream is just nine decibels quieter than a lion's roar.

Annoyance rating 3/5

Decibels 101

Victoria Azarenka

Her wail is usually not as loud as Sharapova's scream, it being only as loud as a lawnmower, but it goes on for longer. Her average screams were recorded to last 1.5 seconds, long enough to be still ongoing while her opponent is returning the ball. One observer said the Belarusian sounded like "Mickey Mouse in distress".

Annoyance rating 4/5

Decibels 95

Michelle Larcher de Brito

The Portuguese player's yelps led to an opponent at the 2009 French Open complaining to the umpire. She has also been known to greet her opponents' mistakes with similar shrieks. Her scream is the loudest among the top players, just 11 decibels quieter than a chainsaw.

Annoyance rating 5/5

Decibels 109

Paul Newman

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