So Melbourne Park is putting its fingers in its ears and preparing for the possibility of The Loudest Grand Slam Final Of All Time. If Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka win their respective semi-finals, you can be sure that the pre-match, mid-match and post-match chatter will be about the power of their lungs, not the power of their forehands (I can’t remember any of the points from the final they contested at last season’s tournament in Miami, but I can remember the noise).
And yet it would be wrong to imagine that grunting is a problem restricted to the women’s game; anyone who listened to Novak Djokovic’s quarter-final against David Ferrer today would have been reminded that men also make themselves heard on a tennis court. Much about Ferrer, the human Pong, is metronomic – he is regular with his running, his consistency of shot, and his grunting. Djokovic was a bit more variable with his grunts, but maybe his highs were higher than Ferrer’s. No one could say, though, that they were a couple of church mice out there on the Australian Open’s Rod Laver Arena. Djokovic and Ferrer have not been the only grunters in the men’s draw at Melbourne Park this year. You can generally hear when Rafael Nadal is putting the effort in.
Yet the men’s tour have not said, as the women’s tour have done about grunting, that they are “aware that some fans find it bothersome”. It would be interesting to know how Ferrer’s clearing his lungs compares on the grunt-o-meter to Sharapova’s primal scream or the screech from Azarenka, but people don’t always seem to be as excited about measuring decibels during men’s matches as they are during women’s.
Is there an element of sexism at play here? You would have to think so. Male tennis fans are much more likely to snigger at Sharapova’s grunt than at Ferrer’s (ever since Peter Ustinov said of Monica Seles, “I’d hate to be next door to her on her wedding night”, there has been some innuendo in this debate). That is one reason why there has been more attention on women’s grunting. Another is the pitch – the higher pitch of the women’s grunts tends to annoy spectators more than the noise from men’s matches. “The guy’s are grunting as well,” Stacey Allaster, the chairman and chief executive of the WTA, has said. “It’s not unique to women’s tennis. But our female DNA transmits it in a different way.”
It would also seem that there are more occasions in women’s tennis than in men’s when players make an extreme amount of noise when not making an extreme amount of effort. It is when a player hits a vanilla, nothing forehand, and screams the Rod Laver Arena down, that spectators get upset. So there are three reasons (not all of them valid) why grunting is more of a public relations problem for women’s tennis than for men’s. But don’t imagine for a moment that watching a men’s match is like enjoying a silent movie.
Laugh, don’t legislate. It has been suggested, by Virginia Wade and a few others, that the way to stop players grunting is not through beefing up the rules and regulations, but through the crowd’s disapproval and mockery. Nothing stings like laughter.
But that is to ignore events earlier in this tournament when spectators imitated Victoria Azarenka’s grunting. That did not stop her from grunting, or from winning. “I have no problem with that at all actually,” Azarenka said of the crowd’s teasing. “I knew it was going to happen. Of course I heard it. I mean, I’m not deaf. But it’s fine for me. I respect the crowd, whatever they do. I try to just be focused on my game and that’s it.” And Maria Sharapova, a player who has always had the cold-eyed approach of a CIA operative, has never been one to let others distract her from her business.
Plus, if Sharapova and Azarenka were to meet in Saturday’s final, the crowd would probably end up teasing both of them, and the mockery would cancel itself out – neither of the two would feel as though she had been singled out for her grunting. The crowd’s laughter would turn the final into a joke event; what it wouldn’t do would be to change the players’ behaviour. Or even effect the result.