Yes, we’re going to have a talk about grunting in tennis again. Yes, I know it’s an uncomfortable, often cringe-inducing, subject. Yes, it has often been handled poorly by anyone who tries to address the topic. The challenge: to address the topic in a way which enriches instead of irritates, and which doesn’t single out the women more than the men.
For starters, this is not a single-gender problem in tennis. Marcel Granollers has been a regular offender in terms of using an invasive, intrusive grunt in matches, and people who watched Jaume Munar beat David Ferrer in round one of this French Open told me that Munar’s vocalizations possessed an especially grating quality. Women, men — it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter: Players of both genders who make vocal utterances beyond the realm of normal effort, and/or who change the cadence or intensity of their vocalizations on big points, should be cited for a hindrance. We know that tennis has been woefully inadequate in policing this part of the sport over time, so don’t get your hopes up in terms of meaningful change appearing anytime soon.
Why address the topic, then, you might ask, if you feel nothing is likely to be done?
Good question. I have two reasons.
First of all, grunting — displayed to the extreme by Maria Sharapova in her first-round win over Richel Hogenkamp on Tuesday at Roland Garros — should be viewed by tennis (the people who govern the sport) as a far more urgent concern than pace of play. We really need to establish this point and cement it into the sport’s culture.
It is FAR more off-putting and distracting for an invasive noise to cut into the natural symphony of elite athletic competition than it is for a player to take 31 seconds after a point than 24. A match which goes seven minutes longer than it otherwise would (due to delays of several seconds between points) represents a “long day,” but sitting through a match with cutting, calculated noises is a much “longer day” — long in the figurative sense of being annoying and frustrating, not the literal sense of time elapsed. I would like to think most people in the tennis industry would agree on this, yet all the regulatory/reformist momentum in tennis seems to lie with pace of play, not these vocal utterances.
That’s a problem and a deficiency. Hopefully the flow of conversation in the power circles of tennis — and places such as the United States Tennis Association, which has quickly moved to put a serve clock at the U.S. Open — will devote more attention to more urgent issues and cultivate a better and more appropriate sense of priorities.
The second reason for addressing this issue — in spite of the clear-eyed awareness that reforms are not imminent or likely — is that it would be the best thing for Maria Sharapova’s career.
At the very least, if “would” is too strong a word, it certainly “could” be the best thing for the five-time major champion and two-time French Open winner.
Tennis historians will recall the 1992 Wimbledon women’s singles final, in which Monica Seles — after a fortnight of sustained attention and scrutiny — suppressed her vocal grunt and looked like a shell of her normal self in a 2-and-1 blowout loss to Steffi Graf. It is undeniably true that Graf played a great match that day, but it was hard — if not impossible — to ignore the notion that Seles played with a cluttered mind, too overtly conscious of the grunting problem and therefore distracted from doing what she did so well: hitting the bejeezus out of the tennis ball.
To be honest, the furor surrounding Seles seemed unfair at the time, even though the absence of grunting from a Wimbledon final was pleasant to the human ear. Seles had been playing the tournament while grunting, so playing the final without grunting represented an interruption of her normal routine. To that extent, the controversy enfolding Seles was manufactured rather than representing an intelligent, measured, structured, planned response to a problem. 26 years later, tennis still hasn’t sufficiently addressed this issue, which leaves me sympathetic toward Seles — she was pounced on in a specific moment rather than becoming a gateway to sport-wide reform. Similarly, it’s not as though anything should be done at this French Open to regulate Sharapova’s utterances. If they were allowed on Tuesday in round one, they have to be allowed in any subsequent match Maria plays. Tennis or any other sport can’t maintain credibility by abruptly changing rules or points of emphasis during tournaments. Reforms have to occur between tournaments and then stick once tournaments begin; they can’t be introduced midstream.
What I would like to say to Sharapova — also to the men who grunt excessively, but especially to Sharapova given her champion’s pedigree — is simply this:
I admire Sharapova’s competitiveness. Many dismiss her resolve and resilience because of how well Serena Williams has rebuffed her over the years, but that’s Serena Freaking Williams. Being consistently outflanked by Serena is no point of shame. Sharapova truly is a world-class fighter, no matter how much the contrarians might try to insist otherwise. Sharapova — say what you want about the other aspects of her personality and manner — has set a hugely positive example for young tennis players around the world by showing how far a strong work ethic can take a person. She has worldwide fame on a vast scale, and yet plays as though she is fighting for every last dollar or ranking point on the challenger circuit. I find that hunger inspiring and instructive, a great legacy to leave behind. It’s a huge gift to the sport, always the thing I will admire most about Maria.
Before Sharapova hangs up her racquet — whenever that might be — I would like to see her display her trademark resolve without all the crutches and aids she incorporates into her matches. The comfort breaks after second sets are mildly annoying, but well within the rules and not pervasive throughout a match — that tactic belongs only to one moment, not the full two and a half hours of a Sharapova three-setter.
The elongated, extended grunting, however, IS pervasive, and to put a finer point on it, different.
As annoying as grunting might be, it is still tolerable as long as the sound is a quick burst — the sound goes as soon as it comes. I (and I’m sure, many players) don’t like it, but players can understand and relate to the need to offer a quick expulsion of energy and not feel overly constrained on court.
What was different about Sharapova’s grunt on Tuesday against Hogenkamp is that after the initial expulsion of sound from the vocal cords, Sharapova layered on a second, more jagged sound. The effect was not just a longer sound, but a two-part sound. A reasonable person can associate the first burst of sound with normal, ordinary effort, but a two-part sound with an altered midpoint delivery should be seen as an intentional manipulation of sound beyond ordinary effort.
Regardless of what tennis does — or more likely, doesn’t do — to (fail to) reform this issue, I would simply like to see Sharapova try to compete at her best without these elements of window dressing. Regardless of what anyone thinks about grunting, wouldn’t it be great for everyone, Sharapova most of all, if she could come back from 0-3 deficits in the third as she did against Hogenkamp on Tuesday WITHOUT vocal aids? Removing that layer of controversy (not to mention noise) from her portfolio would enable many people who are ambivalent about her career (in part because of her meldonium suspension) to see her in a more positive light.
That gets to a final and surprisingly simple point: Sharapova is very conscious of her brand and identity, and works very hard to cultivate them.
What better way to improve her brand than by trying to limit the length of her grunts, and let her tennis do more of the talking?
Image source Jimmie 48