Tennis: Unsportsmanlike grunt screams out for action

By Michael Brown

Firstly there was Moan-ica Seles and Arantxa Sanchez Vic-roar-io. Now there is Serena Shrill-iams and Maria Shriek-apova - the women who have quite literally put the grunt into women's tennis.

Grunting, screeching, screaming, call it what you will but it has blighted tennis since Monica Seles' emergence in the early 1990s.

It has been much more of a problem in the women's game than men's tennis and even though it has been a subject of frivolity, some tournaments have been subjected to 'grunt-o-meters' and fans have been told some players are noisier than a pneumatic drill, a police siren or even a 747 taking off.

It's a serious issue and something the ASB Classic was confronted with this week. As much as organisers might have salivated over the prospect of yesterday's final being contested by Sharapova and Yanina Wickmayer, it would have been difficult to digest - make that listen to - for many.

At one end, the Queen of Scream, Sharapova, and at the other the woman who likes to make whoopee (many think Wickmayer says 'whoopee' when she plays a shot but it's not clear and even the player has no idea).

Grunting is something tennis officials have been slow to react to and one that causes considerable debate.

There has been consistent talk of penalties for players who grunt too loudly but little action has followed.

Australian officials once banned one youngster from tennis and umpires have occasionally asked players to tone down their exclamations - but they are rare examples.

Arguably the greatest women's player, Martina Navratilova, has strong views.

"It's cheating, pure and simple. It is time for something to be done," she said in her acceptance speech for the 2009 ITF's Philippe Chatrier Award, which honours dedication to the sport.

Navratilova says grunting disguises the sound of the ball hitting the racquet, which prevents opponents from being able to gauge the power, spin and depth of an incoming shot. Studies have shown players are badly affected if they can't hear the ball coming off an opponent's racquet. The counter-argument is that the exhalation of breath relaxes a player, allowing them to play a shot more freely.

It might relax them, but it winds others up.

It didn't stop Greta Arn from winning yesterday's final against Wickmayer on top of her upset of Sharapova in the quarter-finals. She said she doesn't hear her opponents.

Former New Zealand No 1 Belinda Cordwell, however, was thankful grunting wasn't something she was subjected to during her playing days and believes the WTA need to take tough action against those who offend, like warnings and penalty points.

"I'm convinced the player grunting isn't deliberately trying to put her opposition off," she says. "It's just something they do. Certainly players who come through academies like Nick Bollettieri's, he encourages them to grunt on every shot. You look at someone like Sharapova, a lot of her formative years were spent at the Bollettieri academy.

"The problem is, in terms of tennis being such a spectator sport, it's verging on offensive to watch, listen and play against. From what I have heard here, and we've had some fantastic crowds this week, they're not impressed and it's starting to detract from their enjoyment of watching tennis.

"I think the WTA need to look at it. It needs to be in the category of unsportsmanlike behaviour or racquet abuse. The men hit the ball harder but they don't make any noise at all.

"If they do, it's on a crucial point or stretching for a ball. They are just doing their thing. It's not necessary.

"In defence of the players, what do you do with one who has been doing it from age six or seven and are now 21 and it's part of what they do? Do you penalise them for the fact the coach they had growing up thought it was a good idea? It's a can of worms."

It's more than that. It's aural pollution.

- Herald on Sunday

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