US Open Tennis 2012: Screamers Azarenka and Sharapova Keep Winning Unfairly

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US Open Tennis 2012: Screamers Azarenka and Sharapova Keep Winning Unfairly
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Three screamers, Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, are still playing in the US Open.

We may have the pleasure of watching Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka play against each other as soon as their draw is complete. It happened in this year's Australian Open and could easily happen again this week. Two top players who use one tool that will soon be banned, proven to allow them and others unfairly win games.

Samantha Stosur lost to Azarenka in a close match yesterday. While she has continued her U.S. Open winning ways so far, Sharapova still needs to beat Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli, who was ahead 4-0 in the first set when Sharapova benefited from the suspension of play due to the unfortunate rain that has made a mess of the U.S. Open.

In Australia, much was made of how loud these women are on the court. Yet so far in this U.S. Open, nary a word has been spoken about these women's screams.

Perhaps it is because the objections to the screams are on the backburner. The major international tennis authorities, including the WTA and ITF, have reached an agreement banning these screams, which they euphemistically call "grunts".

Distracting noises are not the province solely of women. "Grunting" complaints are cross-gender. While recent problems focus largely on women, the U.S. Open was the scene of an all-men grunting controversy in 1988.

Ivan Lendl complained during that Open after losing to Andre Agassi: "When Agassi went for a big shot, his grunt was much louder. It threw off my timing."

The question of the fairness of screeches and growls on the tennis court and how to control them has been in the tennis world for decades. This decade, we have proof to go along with anecdotal comments that such sounds are intentionally made in order to improve a player's chances to win.

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Ivan Lendl playing at Wimbledon in 1988.
Martina Navratilova claims that grunting "is cheating, pure and simple." She points out that Roger Federer plays tennis in silence.

Similarly, Caroline Wozniacki made cheating accusations when she was No. 1 in 2011. She noted that some players use screaming intentionally to their advantage during matches, claiming that some do not scream at all during practice.

Try to play against screamers, and you will see. There is no way that the same level of concentration is possible. The player commentary, an admission from one of the top tennis academies in the world and a study all prove this.

Yet it is not the unfairness of these loud vocal screeches that have moved the tennis world to act. This, according to many, is due to a "slight increase" in fans who are disgusted by the screaming recently, according to the CEO of the WTA.

As many tennis fans do, you probably turn down the sound if you are lucky enough not to be courtside when they play. And if you start losing fans, your source of revenue starts to dry up.

Besides, admitting that the screeches are unfair means that the results of all those tournaments as the sounds became louder and more obnoxious are not really representative of the talent on the court. But one famous tennis academy, where some of the biggest screaming offenders trained, has done just that.

Thus, tennis authorities, after years of controversy at the Grand Slams and elsewhere, finally got together to discuss what should be done about shrieking. The decision appears to have been to implement a grunt meter that will gauge when grunting has become too loud.

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WTA CEO Stacey Allaster with Maria Sharapova this year.
"Earlier this week the Women’s Tennis Association outlined their plan to, as WTA chairman Stacey Allaster said, “drive excessive grunting out of the game for future generations.” That plan includes educating younger players, designing a handheld device to measure the volume of infractions, and establishing guidelines that more precisely define what’s considered a 'hindrance' to the game."

Nick Bollittieri, the coach for many screamers referenced above, claims he helped current players obtain an exception from the rule, being grandfathered out of the rule so they are not subject to any new rule that may be implemented banning or regulating grunting, shrieking, screeching or screaming—whatever you want to call it.

This means that no matter what happens, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka will go through their opposition the rest of this week with the these players' screams being shared by their opponents and U.S. Open fans. And they will continue to do so for the rest of their careers, allowing them to cheat while everyone else will be unable to do so.

The problem is not only on the court. Fans present can be exposed to pain caused by the noise generated by these two women. Instead of planes passing overhead, at the U.S. Open you can effectively hear them on the court whenever at least one of these two play.

The human pain threshold is 110 decibels, according to a Purdue noise chart. That same chart says that a jet flyover at 1,000 feet is 103 dB and a Bell J-2A helicopter at 100 ft is 100 dB.

Sharapova has had her screams recorded at up to 105 dB. Allegedly, the loudest on tour come from Michelle Larcher de Brito (108 dB), Sharapova and Azarenka (95 dB).

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Nick Bollettieri at 2010 US Open.
Monica Seles, Larcher de Brito and Sharapova, all loud screamers, were trained at Nick Bollittieri's IMG Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Some believe that he and the coaches of the many Eastern European players who make a loud noise when striking the ball have taught their pupils to scream.

Bollettieri says he did not teach "grunting." Indeed, after Bollettieri was questioned about his school over the past few years, his Academy published a paper recently entitled "Breathing vs. Grunting in Tennis."

That paper admits that, as many believe, loud "grunting" is unsportsmanlike and is a "distraction to opponent," which means the opponent is unable "to hear impact of racket on strings", which causes the "opponent error to increase" and "a slower opponent response time."

And there is no admission from any other coach that they have taught their players to scream.

Indeed, because Monica Seles preceded the most famous active screamers, it is plausible that they are only following their childhood hero.

Whatever their initial purpose, there is real evidence that, like the Bolletteiri paper says, screaming distracts the opponent and provides a real advantage.

Indeed, a scientific study has been around for two years that shows the benefits of using a scream and supports player claims that screaming unfairly provides the screamer with an advantage.

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Thus, in 2010, PLOS|ONE, a peer-reviewed online journal, published a preliminary study on the physical effects of grunting. Their conclusion?

"The results were unequivocal: The presence of an extraneous sound interfered with a participants' performance, making their responses both slower and less accurate."

The study is no secret. Yet tennis authorities and players alike play down the effect, with the CEO of the WTA, Stacey Allaster, claiming that the rule change likely to come no sooner than 2013 was due to a "slight increase" in fan complaints.

Sharapova already said that she does not intend to change, although her sound was less prominent this week, perhaps because she has toned it down but more likely because CBS is no longer broadcasting as loudly from the court when she plays.

What we do know is that tennis is far worse for these screams coming from women and men. They surely know that their screams benefit them unfairly yet refuse to change.

Unfortunately, because they are most likely to be grandfathered out of any new rules developed against "grunting," we will have their screams with us until they retire.

Just turn the TV down and do not go to their games. What else can we do?

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