On serve and when whipping his forehand, Novak Djokovic’s grunt is that of a bullfrog, “WooooAH-UH.” Rafael Nadal goes for a throatier, “AAArrgggHH.” Occasionally, Andy Murray offers up a more hushed, constricted, “Eeeeeehhh.” From Roger Federer, of course, we tend to get the sound of silence.
Yet here is a selection of headlines you’ll never read about tennis’ top men: “Earplugs ready, it’s the scream queen final,” ”Shrieks of nature,” or “It’s squeally not on.”
I didn’t make those up. Oh-so-witty, that is all stuff written about Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova before their women’s final at the Australian Open on Saturday.
Anyone else spot the sexist double-standards here?
The issue, if it really deserves to be called that, of women players disturbing fans and perhaps the odd opponent with their shrieks is not new but it’s an easy story for reporters to reheat and serve up when a ready excuse presents itself. The Azarenka-Sharapova match was one such moment, because, yes, they both make a fair bit of noise.
The WTA also is partly to blame for this hoary old chestnut again becoming a topic of discussion. It played to the gallery with a statement this week saying it is “exploring how to reduce excessive grunting, especially for younger players just starting out” and is “aware that some fans find it bothersome.”
Which is surprising and somewhat confusing given that just three months ago, the WTA’s CEO, Stacey Allaster, said: “Grunting is part of our sport, full stop. Athletes hitting the ball as hard as they do, they expel, and there are sounds. Guys do it, women do it, been doing it for a long time.”
Noise, of course, is a very personal issue. To some, Bob Dylan or Yoko Ono singing is music, to others it’s torture. If we all agreed on such things then the drone of South Africa’s vuvuzela trumpets at the football World Cup of 2010 would have been universally loved or universally recognized as the nuisance they were.
Azarenka and Sharapova’s tennis is far more interesting and noteworthy than the noise they make when hitting a ball. Yes, some people find their hoots too loud and too shrill and that irritates them. But my ears seem to screen out the racket. Is that perhaps I’m marveling at the athleticism, shot-making and mental strength it takes to win and didn’t tune to the tennis to poke fun at the women? Or is that unfair to those genuine tennis fans who say the din really does spoil their enjoyment?
Possibly. In which case, I sympathize and suggest a simple answer: The volume button.
But there are others with minds like a railway through a rural backwater — one track and dirty — who seemingly can only think of the bedroom when the likes of Sharapova are groaning and sweating through their exertions. Maybe the same sort of people for whom women tennis players are eye candy to be seen but not heard and who don’t want their fantasies punctured by high-pitched yelps.
For such dinosaurs, there can be no sympathy at all. Unfair? Possibly. But, again, why isn’t this an issue with the men? Because their grunts and groans are manly, and thus acceptable, even expected?
Being aware of what fans want is important for any sport that wants to keep revenues flowing. But so, too, is educating them and not pandering to their every whim or basest instincts. Allaster said in October that she does seem to be getting more comments now from fans about grunting. She wondered whether that might be because improved technology has cranked up the volume on TV broadcasts. She promised the WTA will share fans’ concerns with players and, “if this is a real issue,” speak to coaches about what might be done.
But more important than fans’ enjoyment must be what the athletes think.
Some, when asked, do complain. Agnieszka Radwanska did so this week about Sharapova, calling her noise “pretty annoying and it’s just too loud” — which was somewhat uncalled-for given that the Pole didn’t actually play against the Russian in Melbourne. Radwanska did play Azarenka, losing in three sets, but said she’s grown accustomed to her hoots having known her for years — proof, again, of how tolerance to noise is a personal thing.
Sharapova returned Radwanska’s swipe with interest — “Isn’t she back in Poland already?” she said — and made clear she’s not about to gag herself.
“No one important enough has told me to change or do something different,” she said.
Nor should she.
As Allaster noted in October: “No one is doing this on purpose. It’s the way they’ve trained. It’s the way they hit the ball. The athletes are very ritual and habitual, and it might be such that this generation, this is the way it’s going to be.”
Even more to the point, she added: “I have not had one player come to me and complain, not one. It is not bothering the athletes.”
Azarenka and Sharapova reached Saturday’s final because of better tennis and stronger will, not the loudest shrieks.