an aesthetic argument against the anti-grunting campaign in women's tennis

By Brittney Galloway

She's the One they want!
The gentlemen’s game has been disrupted by the satisfied sounds of women grunting. Anyone with an ear for the nuances of sports decorum will notice that women’s tennis has been bombarded with a symphony of grunts, yells, shrieks and Kung Fu style “aiiiiiii-yah’s” worthy of Bruce Lee. This noise pop symphony of grunts, however, has gone unappreciated by the powers that be and so the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has proposed a crack down on excessive wailing. The proposed rule would have umpires consult sound meters and if a player grunted at an inappropriate level (yet to be determined, but probably somewhere between a yapping lap dog and a fighter jet) that grunter, uh player, would be penalized a point. Fair enough, until you realize that this little scenario could happen: we’re at Wimbledon, it’s 5-6 in the 3rd set tiebreaker and a player lets loose a vicious backhand for the winner—game, set and match. “Wait a minute, that girl grunted one decibel over the limit, no, that’s not the winning shot, that’s bad sportsmanship. Now, someone go check the Queen’s eardrums.” Let us hope that this new plan will foot fault; in the meantime it’s instructive to ask why we have reached this impasse of grunting.

There are a few interesting things about the grunting “problem.” The first is that tennis already has a “Hindrance” rule for audible and verbal penalties. Grunting has been essentially fine for over sixty years despite sporadic complaints. The second is that this is only in effect for women’s tennis though men grunt loudly as well. Why? Because the traditional image of a slim, dainty woman gracefully guiding balls around the court is being destroyed by this new image of tall, muscular, ball crushing machines. The dainty woman doesn’t need to grunt, the ball crusher, however, needs to be loud to be effective. A grunt is not dainty. Bambi does not grunt, although Bambi is a boy, but you get my point. The Association, the fans and even some of the players are terrified of this change. This is a change that encompasses so may unconscious and odd cultural fears that even though the rule change is ludicrous, the fears are very real and what’s prompting them is right in front of us.
There are always rules
The main issue is what is a woman and that basic issue hasn’t been so stark since Dr. Richard Richards had a sex change operation and became Dr. Renee Richards and then joined the women’s tour. That was a groundbreaker, but was in a sense so unusual, especially then, that it never really did prompt any serious response. Richards was eventually accepted, kind of, and the world went on for the better because of it. So, one might ask what is a woman tennis player. Well, for the WTA, it is obviously still the original, cultural ideal: slim, gracious and demure and especially silent. What’s funny is how far from the ideal we’ve fallen and how different it is from what the tennis academies and the current women’s game is producing.

So part of the rule change has to do with a sense of loss. The WTA and maybe we, too, miss women like Steffi Graf, Chris Evert and Martina Hingis, who had beauty and grace on the court. Today, though many of the women players are still considered beautiful, they have lost their feminine grace. One of the last truly graceful female players was Justine Henin-Hardenne (retired 2007) who somehow managed to keep her finesse game among the power hitters. Traditionally tennis is a graceful game and so graceful players are highly respected for their style of play. Roger Federer is a perfect example from the men’s side, although no one questions that the grunting and bullish Rafael Nadal is also good for the game. It’s only on the women’s side where there is a fear of what women are becoming and what women have lost. It’s an easy position to make fun of, but you can clearly see how its proponents feel when they see what has and is happening to the women’s game. The effect on the players is stunning and sometimes, as in the case of Maria Sharapova, transformative.


She just looks perfect
Sharapova fits the look of a female tennis player. She is a long, slim, blond and blue-eyed Russian. In fact, when she hit the scene and won Wimbledon in 2004, the world fell in love with her. She made a huge number of commercials and graced hundreds of magazine covers and even did some modeling. Now however, she isn’t known for her beauty, but for her loud and annoying grunting. The two YouTube clips below are of Sharapova in 2004 and Sharapova in 2012.

In 2004 her grunts were practical and logical. Every sound she made was a physical reaction to the game. Today her grunts have turned to shrieks that sound unnecessary, forceful and tactical. They are longer and higher pitched and don’t seem the result of or expression of physical exertion. Here, is one of the WTA’s greatest fears—a tall, slim, blond, blue-eyed Russian transforming right before us into a monster of rage or, even worse, a Williams sister, but we’ll get back to them later. Right now, it’s important in regards to Sharapova that rage is clearly an issue here. Many of her shrieks have a sound of fear or hopelessness in them. They are intimidating and vaguely inhuman or very inhuman and by extension intimidating, except when they aren’t. Please watch and especially listen to this incredibly comic battle of grunts between Sharapova and Venus Williams and you’ll get a good idea why the WTA is looking to change the rules.

This isn’t tennis, but theater and yet this clip cuts to the heart of the problem—the tennis is amazing. Look at the shots that Sharapova and Venus are hitting and making. It may not be beautiful, but it’s stunning. More importantly, they are clearly playing mind games with each other. Venus isn’t known for shrieking and in fact, like Sharapova in 2004, is really quite close to the WTA ideal, I mean, except for her lack of flowing blond hair and light porcelain skin. Without a doubt their shriek-fest is comic and you can hear the announcers and the crowd laughing, but I wonder if we’re limiting these women by not taking their most theatrical gestures seriously. We’ve all heard stories about vicious football players who off the field are nice, nerdy teddy bears and so in a basic way we understand the difference between the performance of athletic competition and the real person. The WTA wants the real person to be the performance, to comport herself in socially acceptable ways, but sometimes greatness is about consistently and strategically not being acceptable or even yourself. I’m willing to bet a few Russian coins that this display is neither the real Sharapova nor the real Venus, but that these crazy, ridiculous performances are in some ways crucial to their success.


Strong, compact grunting

Monica Seles was one of the first notable female tennis grunters. In analyzing Seles, she seems to use her grunts practically. She sounds like she is doing a lot of work just to hit the ball. In the 1992 Wimbledon Semi-final against Martina Navratilova, Seles never made a sound that didn’t reflect her actions. If she strained, her voice was strained, if she hit the ball harder her voice was louder. Ironically, the hindrance rule was brought up during this match. During one of the breaks, tournament referee, Alan Mills, announced that: “Grunting comes under the law relating to hindrance. The umpire first warns the player and if it continues he can then penalize the player a point… and then has the ultimate sanction to default the player.” Mills’ language is funny, because it’s so dispassionate, but beneath the veneer of objectivity, the simple stating of the rules, is a deep problem in how we regulate female athletes. I’m not going to push the analogy further with women or society in general, but I think that the point is both legitimate and of great concern.

Now, after our thesis break, let’s get back to the game. Seles wasn’t penalized, in fact never was during the match that she went on to win. The final against Steffi Graf was a different story. Seles purposefully held back her grunts and lost the match. Seles is fundamentally different from Sharapova. She is not a strategic grunter and is, in an old-fashioned sense, a sportsman—polite, respectful and tenacious. Seles received complaints from her opponents and tried to accommodate them, and as a result lost her edge. It’s important to note that her edge was not grunting, but the free expression of what it meant for her to compete. The grunting was for her and was her. It allowed her to focus, to gather her strength and to make her endure. She wasn’t trying to distract her opponent or to intimidate them with screeching Aiiiii-yahs. In this case, the hindrance rule was not only a distraction for her, but also, and more importantly, a repudiation of who she was as an athlete.

Seles’ has a fundamentally different body than Venus and Sharapova. Everything about her is connected. She isn’t the typical long slim player (though she isn’t by any means a “big” player). Her body works a little differently. Her power and skill are a result of her shoulders, torso, hips and legs working in unison. Of course limiting her grunting will affect her play. To disrupt the harmony within her body is to disrupt the bases of her game. Sharapova and Venus on the other hand don’t need to be as unified to excel. They both can make impossible reaches and still put an amazing amount of pace on the ball. It’s almost as if they can isolate different parts of the body just to get the job done. This is why allowing for different kinds of physical expression is crucial. Seles’ grunt is a part of her athleticism, literally an expression of her body and a marshaling of its force and technique. It too is beautiful, just atypical with the going norm, and should never have been hindered or even threated with hindrance. Limiting her expression limits her ability to perform against players who aren’t as restricted by their own anatomy. This new limitation keeps women with different body types out of the game. That is a whole other layer of expressive beauty being pushed out because it doesn’t fit the ideal image of a female tennis player.


Francesca Schiavone is an interesting case, in many ways a more psychological version of Seles. Small, but muscular, her grunts are loud, low frequency and odd. It reminds me of a battle cry of some kind when she yells “ha hee!

She uses this “battle cry” for almost all of her shots, powerful or not. Her style of grunt is similar to that of male tennis players. Though Schiavone is loud, I don’t know of many critics complaining about her. A few fans however are annoyed with the length of her “ha hee” grunt which (usually) happens after she hits the ball. In the clip of Schiavone vs Errani, the ball is already passing the net as the grunt begins. However, sometimes, when she’s on the run the grunt ends before she even hits the ball. I honestly don’t know what to call this behavior but a “habit.” Her grunting doesn’t seem to be connected to her effort, but I also do not feel like she is doing it to throw off her competitor, but if she were to stop grunting, I’m convinced her level of play would still be affected.

In this way Schiavone is different from all the other players I’ve mentioned. Her grunting doesn’t have anything to do with physical exertion, nor is it tactical. Though obviously a habit, Schiavone’s grunts are part of her own mental processing. The grunt helps her figure out the physical space she is in. Though the timing seems random to viewers, there is a pattern. When she is rushed she grunts earlier, when she has time she grunts later. The pace of the ball and of the match determines how she will grunt. Some people think silently and others talk as they think. Barring one thinking process in favor of another is a sure path to failure. Similar to school systems that teach in a number of different ways, we should try to create systems that allow for the greatest diversity of types and styles. It’s not only democratic, but freeing as well. Forcing one idea never works. It is here that we see the real limitations of the WTA’s attempted ban. It’s not just a rule, but also a position and a philosophy that is not quite human.


I will beat you down!
In many ways the WTA’s attempted rule change is in direct response to two women, so unalike, but who have both caused a great deal of unwarranted fear in the woman’s circuit: Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova. Neither of them are grunters of the first, second nor even the third order. They have nothing on Sharapova or Venus when they gets going, but they are at the root of the problem—not their problem, because they are both fantastic tennis players, but the WTA’s problem with what they represent.

Aside from her build, which is somewhere between a MACK Truck and a NFL linebacker, Serena is a black woman from Compton. (Aside from her sister Venus and young gun, Sloane Stephens, I can’t name any other significant black women on the tour). Serena’s whole game is based on her ego. She intimidates her opponents. That’s just how she plays. She has a domineering effect on the court because she believes she is the biggest, the strongest, the most skilled and the best. And who can really argue with her? Her confidence immediately lowers the rank of her opponent. What about when Serena isn’t the best player of the night? She amps up her intensity and scares the hell out of her opponent. Her mere demeanor can turn a match around in her favor. I would not want to play Serena in a dark alley, much less a lighted tennis court. Even when Serena loses it turns into a dog match before she’s through. She might not win, but she’s going to make you pay. It’s no wonder that most of the time her older sister Venus just kind of throws in the towel when they play. Who would want to deal with that on a personal level, but I guess I’m speaking from the point of view of a reasonable older sister. Frankly speaking, this means Serena’s game is against the hindrance rule. Her energy is a potential distraction to her opponent; she actually changes other people’s state of mind, which is the problem. The very heart of the hindrance rule controversy is the free expression of not only women’s bodies, but also the power of their minds. Serena’s not a grunter, but her mind and how she plays to dominate makes her the biggest grunter of them all. She grunts from the inside and everyone knows her grunts are the psychic equivalent of nuclear explosions.

How could this woman be a menace to tennis society?
Though not a grunter in any sense, Navratilova gave tennis a scare as well and quite similar to what Serena is giving now. This fierce former Soviet Czechoslovakian quickly dominated the women’s game, both physically and psychically. She radically changed the identity of the female tennis player in two ways. 1: being a foreigner from an Eastern block country in an American dominated game, and 2: being openly gay in a straight society. When Navratilova hit the scene in 1975, she shot to the top, making it to two Gram Slam Finals. By 1978, she won Wimbledon and became #1 in the world. And in 1981, she came out of the closet. In many ways, Navratilova shifted the image of a tennis player all by herself. Change and evolution is an important element of tennis (or anything really) that has strong predetermined ideals. Tennis and the WTA are obviously fearful of change and Navrtilova and Serena have represented two of the most potent assaults of what it means to be a female athlete. They might not be grunters, but one can’t help but feel that the rules are not so much an attack on grunting as an attack on the tremendous sea change that both of them represent. It is all about perception and attitude and these two have those in abundance, and clearly too much in abundance for the WTA.


When a problem is social, and I hesitate to call “grunting” a problem but we ‘ll go with the WTA’s concerns here, the attempts to get rid of the problem are often absurd. If you look at the hindrance rule itself it seems to speak to a different era, when competition was controlled and in fact the entire world was more controlled. The rules state that:
continual distraction of regular play, such as grunting, shall be dealt with in accordance with the Hindrance Rule. H. HINDRANCE RULE
If a player hinders her opponent, it can be ruled as either involuntary or deliberate.
 1. Involuntary Hindrance: A let should be called the first time a player has created an involuntary hindrance (e.g., ball falling out of pocket, hat falling off, etc.), and the player should be told that any such hindrance thereafter will be ruled deliberate.
 2. Deliberate Hindrance: Any hindrance caused by a player that is ruled deliberate will result in the loss of a point
Tennis requires amazing physical strength, now more than ever. It is as if the WTA has forgotten how hard it is to play tennis. Yes, it is a mental game with roots in aristocratic English society, but the physical toll is real. The players are sprinting, zigzagging, hitting balls with great force and keeping track of the opponent while making strategic decisions. No one would tell a soccer player to silently kick the ball or a football player to hush up and make a tackle. Male sports recognize the difficulty and the exertion it takes to perform these tasks. The real problem is that the world has changed and is changing fast. Women have pushed the limits of what it means to be feminine and what it means to be graceful and that is good for all of us. Serena, Navratilova, Seles, Venus, Sharapova and Schiavone in their competitiveness and individual artistry have opened up possibilities of expression that a generation or two before would have seemed impossible. The WTA should not try to legislate that away and hinder what has become a vibrant and compelling form of true beauty.
I will rip your little lawn game up!
©The CCA Arts Review and Brittney Galloway

No comments:

Post a Comment