Women's Tennis: Hear Them Roar

JA AllenSenior Writer IJuly 31, 2009

According to her detractors, while playing ,16-year-old Michelle Larcher de Brito of Portugal emits full-bodied screams that register 109 decibels or the noise level of a racing car revving to full speed. 

During the 2009 French open, Aravane Rezai complained to the umpire about the noise emitting from the teenage Portuguese girl. 

Larcher de Brito was so loud at the French Open that the crowds there booed her. Well, you know the French—it takes a great deal for them to turn on a fine looking female! 

The full impact of her noise level focused the media once again on the issue of grunting because Larcher de Brito was really bellowing. She makes no apologies saying, in effect, "get over it!"

The reason this debate has once again clawed its way to the top of the queue is because her increased decibels added substance to the grunt-o-meter. This is a recent Brit publicity ploy to draw attention to the noisy infraction, in their way of thinking. 

According to Gwen Knapp, reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Maria Sharapova has been recorded at 101 to 103 decibels. These squeals were once at the peak of the annoyance inducing scale. But Larcher de Brito is a new queen in the offing. 

Martina Navratilova considers this cheating; she claims that with so much noise, the opponent can't hear the racket hitting the ball. Because this sound is another tool used by players to react and prepare for returning shots, the noise represents a major disadvantage. 

The sheer noise level is also a major distraction. You don’t know whether to hit the ball or take cover!

Chris Evert feels that the practice infringes on gamesmanship because the noise gives an unnatural advantage to one player.

Serena Williams, on the other hand, commented that she pays no attention to either her own grunting or the noise from her opponent. She's concentrating on tennis—the noise doesn't enter her consciousness. 

The world of women’s tennis is facing another assault on the extremely over-analyzed issue of “grunting” on court. It seems the tennis establishment is once again weighing in en masse on this “monumental” topic.

This practice was introduced preeminently into the women's game in 1990 by then teenager Monica Seles whose grunting was frequently the subject of unending debate. But Seles was an amateur compared to the noise levels emanating from Sharapova or Larcher de Brito.

The most interesting statement that seemingly cuts through all the other serious points for discussion was put forth by German Michael Stich, who was ranked world No. 2 in 1993.

Stich contends that women shouldn't grunt because it detracts from their “sex appeal.” He digs a deeper hole for himself by explaining that women played “[at Wimbledon] just to sell sex.”

“It’s what they sell...They want to look good; they pay attention to their looks and everything.” It appears, rather, that “sex appeal” is what Stich is buying.

One wonders just what the German entrepreneur was smoking that prompted him to shoot himself in the foot. Frankly, it seems the man was speaking his chauvinist mind, sad to say. 

He did try valiantly to extricate himself from this unfortunate statement. But if you think his point of view is extraordinary, then you live in a fool’s paradise. 

Many of the male persuasion judge the women’s game and its players by the way the player looks. Who gets more press—Svetlana Kuznetsova or Maria Sharapova? Who gets scheduled on Centre Court for television coverage? Why do you think that is?

While this reality may be the case, why state it aloud to make sure you are stereotyped as a chauvinist just as you stereotyped female tennis players? You have to believe that Stich’s career as a commentator or promoter in tennis is hereby limited.

The best perspective comes from renowned Frank Deford who said on July 25, 2009 from his NPR perch, “I’ve never understood why these high-pitched sounds are called grunts. I always thought grunts were deep and guttural. Senorita Larcher de Brito is more of a shrieker, wouldn’t you say? Actually, I always thought the best grunter of all was a Romanian player named Virginia Ruzici of the 1970s whose shriek reminded one and all, vicariously, of ecstasy.”   

Since we tolerate noise in other sports—we even have cheerleaders to encourage the masses to open up—why should we ban it from tennis? If we think of it as just hitting another sweet spot, who could possibly object that sound? 

As women hit the ball harder and harder, the genteel nature of the sport is bound to change. Accept it and get on with it. Like Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally,” let’s end this silly debate on a high note...

After Thoughts

Speaking of shrieking, Maria Sharapova promises to be in prime form for the U.S. Open.

Tennis promoters pray this is true because of Sharapova’s immense popularity, hoping her ascension will still the disquiet in the women’s game caused by perceived inequality in the rankings. We also anticipate the return of Kim Clijsters. 

While Serena Williams has won three of the last four grand slams and Dinara Safina has won none, Safina continues to hang onto that No. 1 spot. Of course it should be noted that Safina has made her way into two of the last three grand slam finals, falling short only at Wimbledon. Still, those who take the uninformed view complain about the ranking system without really understanding it.

So what else is new?