Column: Plan for on-court 'grunt-o-meter' a scream
Maria Sharapova might look like a great tennis player to you.
Now go stand in front of a TV. Crank the volume all the way up. Listen for the "yowl" just before she hits the ball.
To a decibel meter, Sharapova might as well be a food processor.
The Williams sisters? They sound like a subway car roaring by. Victoria Azarenka? A monster truck.
So if you wondered why women's tennis officials revived talk of a "grunt-o-meter" during one of their busiest stretches of the season, here's the short answer: As much as the WTA loves having its stars seen during the fortnight at Wimbledon, it's doesn't necessarily want them to be heard -- at least not during matches.
The problem is only compounded when some of the best players also happen to be among the loudest. Unfortunately, grunts approaching 100 decibels aren't limited to the four above and they aren't just distracting TV audiences and fans in the seats. They're driving opponents crazy, more and more it seems, even in early-round matches.
Not long after No. 15 Sabine Lisicki beat unseeded Bojana Jovanovski on Wednesday, the winner confirmed she'd gone to the chair umpire during the match to complain she couldn't hear the ball being hit because of Jovanovski's grunting. A moment later, she was asked, "How does it compare with Sharapova and Azarenka?"
"It was completely different, but off-putting, as well," Lisicki said. "Grunting is part of the game, but it shouldn't be off-putting and be an advantage for the opponent, the one who is doing it."
Asked about her own grunting, Lisicki said, "Sometimes I do, yes, but I hope it's not as bad. No one ever complains, though."
Those exchanges, in a nutshell, suggest what a disaster deploying a "grunt-o-meter" -- a term WTA officials carefully avoid -- at courtside could become.
For one thing, it reinforces the perception that a double-standard still governs tennis, when the memory of unequal pay for the sexes is still shameful enough and there's no known movement afoot to mute the best men's tennis players, even though reigning No. 1 Novak Djokovic often croaks like a bullfrog and Rafael Nadal sounds on occasion like he's gargling. Contrast how every match-up between those two is billed, compared to the way the Sharapova-Azarenka duel was played in the media the day before their Australian Open final: "Shrieks of nature," one tabloid said. "Earplugs ready," said another. "It's the scream queen final."
There's already a "hindrance" rule on the books governing situations when one player distracts another. Currently, it's up to the umpire to decide if the action was involuntary (a let is called the first time it happens) or deliberate (if it happens a second time, it results in the loss of a point). During discussions with the international tennis federation and representatives of the Grand Slam tournaments, WTA officials have proposed to take the subjectivity out of the process by developing a hand-held device that would let umpires measure on-court grunting levels. Who's going to decide where to set the decibel level? How many challenges does an opponent get? Do we really need more stoppages? And how embarrassing could this get?
The good news is that we won't find out anytime soon. If there's a saving grace to the WTA plan, it appears to be that there's not much in the way of fixed points. So far, they've said only that they plan to begin educating players in the academies and national development programs, then move into the junior ranks and lower-level tournaments.
Asked what she thought about the debate, Serena Williams barely acknowledged there was one.
"I'm not thinking about it," she said.
Sharapova seemed to consider it briefly. Asked if there was anything she could do to cut down the volume of her grunts, she replied, "Umm, certainly not now. Not since I've been doing it since I was 4 years old. It's definitely tough and impossible to do when you've played this sport for over 20 years."
It's not that Sharapova wouldn't like to be quieter. She's had discussions previously with WTA chairman and chief executive Stacey Allaster, and she applauds the effort -- so long as they start with the kids.
"Going to the juniors, going to the academies that are producing the young players, and putting a system in place," Sharapova said, "I think it's extremely smart."