Reading the Readers: Feb. 7

Thursday, February 07, 2013 /by

Here's our first post-Oz Reading the Readers. If you have a question or comment for this column, please email me at stignor@tennismagazine.com.

*****

Steve,

Enjoyed the replayed TENNIS.com chat, but have to quibble over one Q&A, about whether umpires can call grunting that goes on into the opponent's shot a hindrance. If this piece is correct, then as the rules stand, umpires can't call it a hindrance.

I was surprised to read people's reactions to Bojana Jovanovski’s grunting during the Sloane Stephens match [in Melbourne]. She's been on tour for years, she's not exactly an unknown quantity, why all the sudden surprise and outrage? Lisicki complained about Jovanovski's grunting to the umpire at Wimbledon last year. Maybe it got more attention in the Brit press than it did elsewhere.—Jewell

Jewell is referring to a comment I made in a live chat earlier this week, about whether I thought extreme grunting could be called a hindrance. I thought it could, but according to the post she cites above, written by a certified official, it can’t. As far as the rules are concerned, it’s a question of intent and timing, not volume. Essentially, to call something a hindrance, an umpire must decide that whatever noise was made was a deliberate and/or unusual act that might distract an opponent. Such as, say, Serena Williams yelling “Come on!” as Sam Stosur was swinging at a ball in the U.S. Open final; or Virginie Razzano’s “cry of pain” against Serena at the French.

Some people, Martina Navratilova for example, believe that a shriek should be considered a hindrance because it interferes with the other player’s ability to hear the ball come off the shrieker’s strings, but that isn’t addressed in the rules. Taken to an extreme by a player like Azarenka or Sharapova, a Woooooooo or an AAAAHHHHHH!!!! could still be going when the opponent is in the process of swinging. Apparently, that’s not a hindrance, either, because the noise originated when the ball was on the same side of the court as the noisemaker. In the juniors, I once played a kid who grunted twice on each point, once when he swung and once when you swung. I’m guessing that would be considered a hindrance, though none of us called him on it, because he seemed slightly cracked.

Should the rules address grunting? In my own experience playing people who grunt loudly, I wouldn’t say that it hinders me outright, but it can be intimidating to the point where it feels like an unfair advantage. Often, the only answer seems to be to start grunting back. It definitely makes the sport less pleasant, but you can’t really call a hindrance for that. 

If we can't do anything for the players, the question then becomes, should the pro game do something to lower the volume for the fans, and to protect the quality of the product? From my own perspective, I prefer no noise to a grunt, but I tend to get used to the shrieks as a match goes on. I’ve never really been bothered by Sharapova’s, and I even enjoyed trying to figure out how you would transcribe what Jovanovski was growling in her match against Stephens in Australia. (Which brings up another factor in this: I watched that match live, and was a little surprised by the intensity of the reaction against Jovanovski from others who saw it on TV. Microphones do make the noise worse.) 

At the same time, I dislike listening to Sara Errani and found myself rooting for Mona Barthel when they played this weekend in large part because Barthel doesn’t make any noise when she hits the ball. Will non-grunters have more fans in the future? The more important question is: Are fans turning the channel because of the shrieks? Anecdotally, yes, grunting is a turnoff, and I don't know anyone who prefers it or seeks it out. But I’ve also never read any hard stats on whether viewership is down specifically because of the noise factor. Serena Williams has been known to let out a scream or two, and she’s always been a ratings magnet. Other than the scoreline, last year’s Olympic gold-medal match between Serena and the Player Sometimes Known as Shriekapova was considered a dream final for NBC.

What about the point that Sharapova and Azarenka make, that their woo-ing and screaming are essential to their shotmaking? Daniel Nestor, who came to grunting late, also believes that it helps him hit the ball better. Here I think we can distinguish between an exhalation as you swing and a noise that continues on for much longer. The quick grunt can help, but in my opinion Vika or Maria don’t need to make the noises they make. I’ve watched both of them practice without them.

That leads to the final, often unspoken aspect of this debate: In making the distinction I just made—yes to Nestor’s grunt, no to Sharapova’s shriek—was I succumbing to gender bias? After all, many of the top men, including Djokovic, Nadal, Murray, and Ferrer, make a significant amount of noise when they play, though I don’t think it's as loud or prolonged as the most famous women grunters. The bellow that Jerzy Janowicz was making, until he had his meltdown in Australia, was a different story; that was one of the loudest and most intimidating things I heard Down Under. (Janowicz started playing much better when he stopped doing it; hopefully he’ll remember that experience in the future.) Obviously, any rule changes or initiatives to address grunting have to be applied to men and women equally. In the end, gender bias or not, overblown problem or not, I think something should be done to discourage it.  

Speaking of gender biases, I’ve noticed something strange recently about how I perceive noise-making among men and women in tennis. One reason it’s considered especially objectionable for women to grunt loudly is that it’s not “lady-like” behavior. But now that the women have become so known for it, I’ve found myself thinking, when I hear an ATP player with an excessive grunt, that it sounds a little...unmanly?

Is this progress, Jewell, or the opposite?

*****

Steve,

You were one of the people who called the Nole-Andy final [in Australia] boring. I thought you were better than that. Isn’t it just bitter Federer or Nadal fans who don’t like this rivalry, because they can’t face the future without their favorites?—Rob

I didn’t call the match “boring,” exactly. How about “underwhelming," or, "It was just OK"? You’re right, fans of other players can be buzzkills when their guy isn’t involved. So many people in general consider Federer’s game the last word in tennis style that no Grand Slam final without him will measure up in their minds. I also think that you still need either Fed or Rafa there, either across from each other or across from Novak or Andy, to give the match an edge, a sense of something at stake beyond whether the rallies are interesting or uninteresting.

That said, I want to like Djokovic vs. Murray. I enjoy their games, their personalities, and their individual rivalries with Federer and Nadal. But of all of their matches this year and last, the only one that struck me as memorable for something other than length was the final in Shanghai. It seems like their playing styles, which are similar in their reliance on consistency and defense, tend to irritate, rather than inspire, each other. 

This could change if one of them tries to make a serious adjustment to get the upper hand. After this match, it looks like Murray needs to find a way to attack Djokovic—for most of the last three sets, he seemed lost as to how to do it, which wasn’t the case when he played Federer in the semifinals. Maybe Djokovic can force Murray to show off more of his game.

Perhaps more important, though, while their matches have been close and the wins and losses have gone back and forth, their rivalry lacks a psychological dimension. Neither is older or younger; neither is the established king or the upstart challenger; there's nothing Oedipal, or Fedipal, going on between them. Those are the elements that give a Grand Slam final an edge. 

But maybe none of them will be necessary; maybe we're worrying too much. There’s at least one person of importance who doesn’t seem to be buying into the Muzzovic vision of the future. Nadal, after his comeback win yesterday in Chile, was asked by L’Equipe whether his ego was hurt by talk of a “Djokovic-Murray era.” 

“My ego is calm,” Rafa said with a laugh. “...I’m only one year older than Djokovic and Murray, so perhaps now is not the time to bury me.”

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