Grunting. It’s a conversation – or argument – that has dogged tennis for a number of years. Often focused on the women’s game (although, let’s be honest, the men are just as culpable), it divides opinion and whips the authorities into a frenzy like few other topics.
Which is why it’s strange to read that WTA CEO Steve Simon has breezily dismissed the subject during a sit down with a gaggle of journalists at the Miami Open. In what appears to be a somewhat surprising move, Simon said: “I don’t think it’s as strong as a few years ago – there are fewer players grunting.”
That the two highest profile grunters on Tour have been absent for a “few years” could explain why the subject has been less prevalent than before. However that will soon change, with Maria Sharapova less than a month away from making her high-profile comeback, and Vika Azarenka already in training following the birth of her first child.
Not that there is much Simon can do about the noises emanating from these two leading figures in the women’s game.
But by dismissing the issue in such a blasé manner, he starts to undo the work that his predecessor Stacey Allaster began in her latter years at the helm of the WTA.
Following reams of negative media coverage, not to mention complaints from players themselves (Caroline Wozniacki once opined that some players “do it on purpose” to distract), Allaster suggested that the WTA would start working with younger players to educate them on developing their game without excessive grunting.
It was a move that was broadly welcomed by fans, the media, and players themselves (including Sharapova).
Simon, however, appears to have moved away from that model of development, and is instead putting his faith in the WTA rulebook to manage the issue.
That is problematic.
The WTA rules state that: ‘Any continual distraction of regular play, such as grunting, shall be dealt with in accordance with the Hindrance Rule.’ In essence, a player can be docked a point for grunting.
While the rule looks clear-cut on paper, its enforcement is anything but. With no technology on court to gauge decibel levels, the implementation of this rule by the umpire becomes entirely subjective. The resulting controversy from its implementation (of which there would undoubtedly be plenty should players like Sharapova or Azarenka be penalised) would fall squarely on that umpire, and thus impact their ability to take charge of matches involving that player going forward.
Rather than shift responsibility to the officials, the WTA should instead take responsibility in tackling the issue itself.
Enforcing restrictions on noise levels at junior levels would be a start. Giving current players guidance on acceptable noise levels on court, and umpires technology with which to measure those levels, would be another positive step.
Because, ultimately, nobody is arguing that tennis should be a silent sport.
It is only natural that the world’s top athletes should be able to grunt and groan when pushing themselves to the physical limits. But when grunting is construed as gamesmanship – something that can be switched on and off depending on the state of a match – then it is not only detracts from the sporting spectacle, but turns spectators and TV viewers away in their droves.
That is what really matters.
Because as much as tennis protects its players and their interests, if spectators and fans are turned away because a player is as loud as a jackhammer (Maria Sharapova’s loudest grunt was measured at 101 decibels), then the sport has a real problem.
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