Grunting plagues the men's game, too
Andy Murray tends to play tennis in a simmering fury, and when his temper boils to the surface, he aims for two primary targets: his camp and himself. He has become known for his withering glances and brutal self-admonishments, often to his detriment as he tries to overcome a rough patch in his play.
Very seldom does Murray confront his opponent. He's a pretty fair sportsman that way. But he has his limits, as he showed at Indian Wells. That's when Murray made a very clear statement about a festering, below-the-radar issue in the sport: men's grunting.
Murray's opponent, Carlos Berlocq, felt the Scotsman was taking too much time between points, and made his feelings known. That's when Murray fired back with an accusation that Berlocq was grunting only on certain points, with the intention of distracting him.
"It's ridiculous," Murray said after the match. "He's grunting and I'm still hitting the ball. It's a joke. Sometimes it's silence and then it comes out of nowhere."
Berlocq countered by claiming it's a noise he's made all his life, and that it's far too late to change.
"Yeah, that's what all of the real grunters say," Murray scoffed. "To go from nothing to the loudest grunt you can do, it makes no sense."
It also represents one of the worst forms of tennis gamesmanship. This has been a flaming-hot issue on the women's side, with Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova at the center of the storm, but it's getting more attention on the ATP tour, thanks to Berlocq, Jerzy Janowicz and Marcel Granollers, among others.
Watching clips of Janowicz' career-changing victory over Murray at the 2012 Paris Masters, I was struck by the admirable variety of his shots, often in tandem with the noise he would -- or wouldn't -- make. It's quite common to hear players grunt loudly on first serves, and Janowicz certainly did that. But he's a clever practitioner of the drop shot, more so than any of the exceptionally tall men on tour, and he executed all of those fine-touch strokes in silence. Artistry, after all, is seldom accompanied by commotion.
Then I went into my DVD library and called up the 1982 Wimbledon final between John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, who won a five-set thriller. Here we had two of the most tempestuous players of all time, each prepared to seek any possible edge. Both made brief, low-register grunts when hitting first serves, but as the better all-court rallies unfolded (players actually rushed the net in those days, especially McEnroe), they were played in silence.
That's how it was for decades in tennis. Name any of the great modern-day players, from Pancho Gonzales and Jack Kramer to Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras; they wouldn't think of tarnishing a well-fought match with a torrent of grunts and groans. When the levels of high sportsmanship were set for all time by the great Australians -- Rod Laver, Lew Hoad, Roy Emerson, Ken Rosewall, so many others -- a player would have been laughed off the court for such ludicrous behavior.
That's why I recoil in disgust when a player says grunting or shrieking is paramount to success, as if it constitutes some sort of breakthrough in the dynamics of physical exertion. Nonsense. Don't tell me it's "years of training." It's years of cheating. And when the noise lingers, well past the impact of racket on ball, things can get a bit absurd.
"In the juniors, I once played a kid who grunted twice on each point," Steve Tignor recalled in a Tennis.com column. "Once when he swung and once when you swung."
To me, it seems entirely possible that the evolution of tennis into a baseline game, resulting in monotonous exchanges with very little forward movement, helped spawn generations of grunters. Points become battles of attrition, with a disturbing sameness to the aesthetics. Grunting becomes a form of punctuation, as if to inform the opponent that, by God, I'm going to outlast you if it kills me.
"The first grunter I remember hearing was Jimmy Connors, and after that the ever-noisy Monica Seles," Mary Carillo wrote via e-mail, "but the sounds they produced seemed like 'honest' grunting to me -- organic utterances of true exertion. Tennis has become cruelly physical over the years, especially on the men's side, where so many can play bruising defense against almost impossibly aggressive offense. But from either side, gratuitous grunts and unjustifiable shrieks are more than annoying; they explode the Code, and should be silenced."
Exactly. And if you think grunting is some sort of essential, modern-day phenomenon, watch Roger Federer at work.
Spain's Granollers, ranked No. 35, owns the dubious distinction of Most Pathetic Male Grunter. Upon witnessing Granollers' French Open match against David Ferrer last year, Ben Rothenberg wrote in The New York Times, "He occasionally produced a noise upon contact unlike anything that should be made by a human, much less a tennis player. The deafening honk changed slightly as the match continued. At best it sounded like a disgruntled flamingo; at worst an amorous hippopotamus. ... While the noises made by female players have drawn the ire of the British tabloids, players and fans, the noise made by Granollers was arguably more objectionable. The women hit a higher pitch, but Granollers' bleating was louder, longer and more erratic."
As much as Rafael Nadal's fans may hate to hear this, he has made it cool for aspiring players to grunt like mad. Nadal's exhale isn't terribly offensive, but it tends to linger, and when he gets out there with Novak Djokovic, owner of a two-syllable grunt somewhat reminiscent of Francesca Schiavone's, the soundtrack becomes an annoying and unavoidable part of the match -- made acceptable only by the stakes, and the glorious nature of their performance.
I'm delighted to join Carillo, Martina Navratilova and the many respected tennis insiders who want excessive grunting banned for good, and here's a thought: It's obvious that nothing is going to be done on the women's side soon. Sharapova, Azarenka and Serena Williams (an occasional violator) are the very essence of the women's game. They effectively run the tour and aren't about to be lectured out of long-standing habits. But what if chair umpires began citing Granollers, Berlocq or any male player for "hindrance" violations -- and it became commonplace on the men's tour? At that point, the WTA couldn't help but follow suit.
Perhaps then, at the breaking point, the world of tennis would be in agreement with Boris Becker, who told The Tennis Space that grunting, by men or women, is "an embarrassment, a joke, and I hate it. It's not cool, stop doing it, it's not necessary. You're not going to play better tennis."
Only a much quieter version. The only way that meets the traditional standards of excellence.