A Sound Weapon

by: Peter Bodo | October 28, 2011

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Picby Pete Bodo

It tells you something when one of the main stories emanating from Istanbul at the start of the WTA Championships was about "grunting," although we're long past the stage where that word adequately describes the assortment of shrieks, cries, and barnyard-worthy noises produced by the the lungs of today's WTA stars—and their underlings.

After the first day of play in Istanbul, world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki told reporters (without naming names): "I think there are some players who do it (grunt) on purpose. They don't do it in practice and then they come into the match and they grunt. I think they [officials] could definitely cut it. If you grunt really loudly your opponent cannot hear how you hit the ball. Because the grunt is so loud, you think the ball is coming fast and suddenly the ball just goes slowly. In tight moments, maybe the grunt helps them with getting less nervous."

First off, let's get our terminology right: there are two-schools of vocalization in the WTA, the grunters (a la Francesca Schiavone) and the shriekers (a la Victoria Azarenka, who copied her shriek from Maria Sharapova—and don't let her tell you any different). I don't think the well-known players in either camp do it "on purpose" to throw off an opponent, although I can see where a struggling journeywoman might attempt something like that. But it's still off-putting, and I'll bet dollars to donuts that many more quiet players (a la Sam Stosur, or Li Na) find the vocalizations irritating and borderline unsporting than we know.

It's hard to tell, though, because the WTA players are very careful about criticizing their peers, lest they be perceived as snitches—or find themselves on the wrong side of some powerful stars. Did you see where it took Stosur all of two months to take a position on the Serena Williams outburst that marred the U.S. Open final? Stosur recently told Britain's The Guardian newspaper that she found it very hard to "stay cool" when the other people sharing the center court (Williams and her antagonist, chair umpire Eva Asderaki) were involved in such a "tense exchange." Stosur had avoided taking a position on Williams's freak-out, but she now says of the situation: "It definitely wasn't nice."

Maybe in another three or four years she'll admit that she hates having to listen to Sharapova''s orgasmic ululations?

The WTA is hiding under the desk on this issue, but it's one that just keeps growing—and growing. Apprised of Wozniacki's comments (and she wasn't by any means the first to express such sentiments), WTA CEO Stacey Allaster lamely—and defensively—retorted, "The guys are grunting as well, it's not unique to women's tennis." 

Memo to Ms. Allaster: Not a single fan (to the best of my knowledge) has complained about grunting in the men's game; nor have any of the more voluble grunters' peers. Could it be because the fans recognize the difference between a grunt that is the natural outcome of effort, with a modest timing component as well (which is how it all starts for everyone), and the use of sound as a weapon with which to mark the court as your own territory (in other words, to intimidate), convey an inflated sense of your physical power and determination and maybe, just maybe, make life a little more difficult for your opponent in the ways Wozniacki suggested?

Memo No. 2 to Ms. Allaster: A tremendous number of fans think the grunting on the WTA is a hideous practice that actually ruins the spectating experience. Then there are the legions of potential tennis fans who, while channel surfing, are so put off by the sounds of the women that they can't take tennis seriously.

As Samantha Stosur's coach David Taylor told The Age the other day: "I hate it (grunting). You can't believe how many members of the general public come up to me and say 'It is great that Sam won [the U.S. Open] because she does not scream.'"

Upon reading this, Ms. Allaster probably would accuse me of being unenlightened—a regular old-fashioned sexist. But that's too convenient a defense, and I'm happy to let the evidence and testimony of players and fans (of either sex) speak for themselves. Bottom line: A significant—and growing—number of fans and players find the sounds of the WTA irritating at best, truly off-putting at worst.

I'm not very encouraged by the way Allaster (who admits to an increase in complaints) tackles this issue, which is one that won't go away. She said, "It needs to [start] with the junior players. . .It just comes down to education. They have to determine how they want their brand to be."

Okay, the habits players adopt do start at an early age, and I wouldn't underestimate how obsessively the shriekers, moaners and grunters would cling to their leather-lunger rights. Shut Azarenka up, and if her ranking drops I guarantee you'll see a huge lawsuit. The big stars can't be shamed into doing the right thing; the emperor's new clothes and all that. The only way we'll see change is if the rank-and-file non-grunters get together (this off-season would be a good time) to let the WTA know that they're not going to take it anymore. Warn the shriekers and grunters that they have to tone it down or be disciplined under the same hindrance rule that laid Serena low.

But education? Sheesh. How much "education" does it take to convince a kid that out-of-control screaming is not cool?

And lastly, what's this nonsense about the players determining "how they want their brand to be"?

Last memo to Ms. Allaster: You are the CEO of the WTA Tour. I humbly suggest that this means the WTA would like you to figure out how the brand ought to be, to take the point in controversial issues. And I can't imagine anyone in his or her right mind wants the brand to be. . . "Banshee."

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