Plans to muzzle the ear-bashing grunters of women’s tennis have found an unlikely ally in Maria Sharapova.
One of the worst offenders, Sharapova’s screams have been measured at more than 101 decibels — comparable to a chain saw, a pneumatic drill or a speeding train.
The sport’s governing body is to educate players to turn down the volume after pressure from fans, TV broadcasters and a handful of competitors fed up with the constant shrieking on court — and Sharapova thinks it is the right answer.
The WTA plans to muzzle the next generation with the aid of umpires armed with hand-held devices to measure noise levels on court. Education at major tennis academies, and with juniors and players at lower-tier tournaments has already begun.
“Bottom line is the right answer has been taken by the Tour,” Sharapova said, safe in the knowledge she will not be told to shush.
“I started grunting since whenever I can remember,” she added at the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo. “I see videos of myself and I’ve grunted for that long. Nobody told me to do it in Russia or in Florida. It’s just a natural habit.”
Grunting made the headlines again this year after Belarussian Victoria Azarenka and Sharapova screeched their way to the first two Grand Slam titles of the year.
“The information going towards coaches and academies that are developing talent from a young age is teaching them a certain breathing technique because when you start something from a young age and continue it, it’s a habit — whether you do grunt or don’t grunt,” Sharapova said. “The WTA created a plan. That’s the smart way to go about it, rather than like taking someone’s forehand and grip in the middle of their career, and telling them to change it.”
However, nine-time Wimbledon singles champion Martina Navratilova calls grunting “cheating, pure and simple” and wants rule changes sooner rather than later.
Tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, who has trained many of the game’s super-grunters, including Sharapova, has been accused of teaching it as a ploy to distract opponents.
Bollettieri denies the accusation, but Caroline Wozniacki’s complaints about grunting last year prompted the WTA to approach his academy to discuss ways of preventing the next generation from developing the habit.
Fans in Tokyo last week were divided on the subject of grunting.
“I like it when Sharapova screams,” 27-year-old dental assistant Saeko Hasebe said. “It’s part of the fun. They shouldn’t ban it.”
Businessman Makoto Taniguchi disagreed.
“It’s too noisy,” the 38-year-old said after an Azarenka ear-bashing. “I’ve only been here for two hours and I’ve got a splitting headache.”
Pan Pacific Open winner Nadia Petrova rejected claims grunting was a deliberate tactic and predicted that it would take a long time for the WTA to change the rules.
“I think the main reason is some coaches say the larger you grunt the more air you let out of your lungs to actually execute the stroke harder, so you can hit harder,” the Russian said. “I guess that’s why. That’s the only explanation I have. I don’t think they even realize how loud they get.”
Studies back up Petrova’s theory that the squealers are not faking, claiming that yelling can give people an energy boost or increase adrenalin.
“Maybe [the WTA need to] work out why it’s happening,” former US Open champion Samantha Stosur said. “Almost everyone grunts. Is it exertion or is it something else?”
Critics are accused of sexism, given grunting is hardly restricted to the women.
Eight-time Grand Slam winner Jimmy Connors grunted furiously in the 1970s and 1980s, while Ivan Lendl once complained that Agassi’s grunting put him off.
“Maybe it’s just not as high-pitched, so you kind of don’t worry about it,” Stosur said.
British No. 2 Heather Watson claimed not to have noticed Sharapova’s cacophony during a three-hour marathon with the Russian last week.
“I think I’m just too used to it,” said Watson, who trains at the Bollettieri academy and works with Sharapova’s former coach Mauricio Hadad. “I know some players don’t like it, but most girls grunt, so I really don’t take much notice.”