The recent U.S. Open tennis tournament gave us excellent tennis – and some terrible mouth music. Seasoned practitioners of the high-decibel aerobic grunt, such as Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, managed to raise the art form to new heights, often sounding like sopranos being impaled with a knitting needle as their arias were about to reach a climax. Or like ducks being dissected without anesthetic.
This is no trivial matter. Ms. Sharapova has officially been measured at 101 decibels, just nine below a lion’s roar. Michelle Larcher de Brito has reportedly hit 109 decibels. Such noise has driven some fans to wear earplugs to tennis matches, and others to stay away altogether.
Both women, however, are unrepentant. Said Ms. Sharapova: “I’ve done this ever since I started playing tennis and I’m not going to stop.” Sniffed Ms. de Brito: “If people don’t like my grunting, they can always leave.”
On-court grunting has been an issue for years. In 1988, Ivan Lendl accused Andre Agassi of throwing off his timing with grunting during the U.S. Open. (Yes, male tennis players grunt, too, though only Rafael Nadal comes close to matching the shrieking sopranos’ volume.)
The most outspoken opponent of grunting is former star Martina Navratilova, who says grunting is a form of cheating because it drowns out the sound of the ball leaving the grunter’s racquet and thus prevents the grunter’s opponent from using that clue in deciding how to return the ball.
Various tennis bodies have come up with a draft policy that basically would allow existing grunters to continue but would ban the practice among new players. The policy would thus parallel Major League Baseball’s gradual phase-out of chewing tobacco.
The plan, put together by the World Tennis Association, the International Tennis Federation and the WTA players’ council, seeks to get rid of grunting through hand-held devices that measure noise levels, rules specifying unacceptable noise levels, and “education” throughout the game’s lower levels. Existing pros would be exempt because it was considered unfair to make them change the way they play.
This is a start. For many of us, however, it’s too slow a start. Consider how long it took Major League Baseball to rid itself of the spitball when it banned the pitch but exempted 17 existing practitioners. The last of those 17, Burleigh Grimes, didn’t retire until 1934 – 14 years after the ban was put into effect.
But today’s situation in tennis is more urgent than the one that confronted Major League Baseball 90 years ago. Only a minority of pitchers used the spitball, and they didn’t throw it every pitch. In contrast, grunting in tennis – especially women’s tennis – has become a constant. Given that many of today’s pros are only in their early 20s, some could still be playing on the pro circuit a decade from now. How much more of this should we have to take? And is it really fair to allow the veterans to go on grunting while forcing the newbies to remain quiet?
Yes, the habits of a lifetime can’t be broken overnight. But a decade is far too long. Two years, during which officials would warn grunters but not penalize them, should be ample time for them to mend their ways. After two years, officials would need only start enforcing the existing rule that allows umpires to penalize grunters a point if they feel the noise has distracted the grunter’s opponent. That should solve the problem.
Enough already! If we’d wanted to hear shrieking sopranos, we’d have bought opera tickets, right?
Jon Peirce is a Halifax-based writer.