PARIS – In sports it’s best to corral your horses before they run out of the barn. Translation: a sport best regulate an issue before it’s too late. So, for instance, major league baseball prohibits aluminum bats, so Yankee Stadium is ‘ping-free’. Golf has plenty of control freak equipment rules and tennis long ago banned the gimmicky “spaghetti racket” and regulates frames quite closely.
But grunting, which impacts tennis more than any sport this side of karate, hasn’t been dealt with by the game’s legislators. And, with the emergence of yet another young super-shrieker, 16-year-old Michelle Larcher de Brito, the issue has again shouted loud, and cried out for deliberation. For as writer Christopher Clarey noted, the petite Portuguese player “throws all she possesses into her groundstrokes with a sound and fury that fits neatly into the sonic continuum that began with Monica Seles and has been carried forward, with plenty of complaints from the audience, by Sharapova and Serena Williams.” Of course, Seles would certainly raise her voice to object to this lineage, claiming that tennis’ on-again, off-again grunting pandemic began long before her loud offerings, with none other than Jimmy Connors. But all this begs the question. Do these piercing audibles somehow help a player either with launching into a stroke and do such ferocious shrieks somehow give the grunter some kind of initiative or mental (“in-your-face”) advantage.
While all this is open to speculation, we do know that once a player is a hard-wired grunter, it’s hard to change. Although her critics, like John Newcombe, say Sharapova’s grunting masks the sound of the ball on impact, Maria insists she will never change. As for Seles, remember that after there were numerous complaints about her singular two-toned (chicken-with-it’s head chopped off) holler at the ’92 Wimbledon, Monica muted herself against arch rival Steffi Graf in the final, played miserably and went down way-too-quietly 6-2, 6-1.
True, there is grunting in other sports. (Well, in golf it’s more moaning than grunting.) But in huge arenas we just don’t hear the grunts that well or with the annoying (“where my earplugs?”) regularity that infuses our sport.
The latest drama in tennis’ ongoing sound melodramas unfolded at Roland Garros on Friday when Aravane Rezai repeatedly complained to officials during her 7-6, 6-2 third round win over de Brito, who claimed her foe was much louder than Sharapova, who has bent many a tennis grunt-o-meter out of shape. Rezai told the supervisor, “It’s very disturbing, it’s disturbing me. Please there is a limit, enough … She’s shouting too loud … You can’t really shout that way.” Later the Frenchwoman told the press that de Brito was trying to impress me with her shouts, and I managed to win the match all the same … She really shouts loud. Maybe it’s the way she tries to impress the opponent, but it really did upset me … it was really unpleasant … the umpire did not really do his job, so I told the referee… It’s a pity, because she really plays well … but she still has a lot to learn … she’s just going through a phase. She’s only 16
… But it really was a tactic. I managed to block that out and I tried to impress her and make her understand that she was not dominating, that this is not done … I didn’t let her get away with it.”
Rezai continued, saying maybe that’s her weapon. ” As for the response of other players, Rezai contended “of course, in the locker rooms, people talk. The players react … Maybe in the next few matches … other players are going to complain … She started it, and I defended myself.
Not surprisingly, the Philippe Chatrier Court crowd seemed to agree with Rezai, as they hooted and hollered at the ear-piercing Portuguese. But after admitting that it “wasn’t too much of a great feeling” having the crowd on her back, an unrepentent de Brito had the temerity to claim that Rezai was the first one to complain. “I guess that was a bit of her tactic to throw me off … I played her last time in Miami. She did the same thing. But, there’s nothing I can really do … [her] statement to the umpire … threw me off a little bit, because, the crowd was against me. But I guess she has to find a way to win … [that] got a little bit under my skin. [It] shouldn’t have, but I’m young and I’m still learning.”
De Brito noted that Rezai never complained when she was winning and said her shrieking was a natural thing,just something she learned and no she was not going to stop (“something would be lost in my game if I changed”) and no there should be no rules to regulate grunting (there are enough rules already) and yes, it was only a coincidence that so many of the game’s great women grunters – Seles, Sharapova, Serena and Venus – all came through Bollettieri’s groundie foundry.
So, in the end, we wondered do de Brito’s sound effects give help her timing and aide her strokes. “Truthfully, it actually does,” the teen replied. “It’s almost like a rhythm, when I hit a forehand or hit a backhand, the grunting is almost like a split step. It’s part of my stroke. I don’t know what else I can say. [It] feels good, because when I don’t grunt, it just feels weird because it’s just not me.”
FLAWLESS FED: Roger Federer is known for his near-flawless approach to tennis and its little details. Now, according to Swiss sources, his wife Mirka is due to deliver their first child at a perfect time – the gap between the end of Wimbledon and the height of the North American hard court season when Fed usually comes off his traditional summer break and resumes tournament play. (Of course, may we note, mother nature sometimes has her own plans.)
WELCOME TO PARIS: Mustachioed tennis fans with pipes…Dreamy-eyed couples passionately making out … Woman in purple heels with creamy pearls…Big cigars, little cars, cafes that craft the art of hanging out, intriguing bookstores … A harpist at the Metro stop playing Pascal … A media van that offers Beethoven’s 5th as Paris’ night lights bounce playfully off the Seine, while the Eiffel Tower looms constant and Notre Dame is on the horizon … a sing-song language and wine that flows without pause.
SURVIVE AND PLAY ON: Venus Williams survived a match point against Czech Lucie Safarova to go into the third round and Federer fought off 4 set points in favor of Argentine Jose Acasuso and (after quite an un-Federerian struggle) won 12 of the last 14 games to prevail.
WE WILL MISS YOU MARAT: There are the good, saintly players in tennis. There are the bland ones in tennis. And then there are the contrarians, a strain that goes back to Bill Tilden and you could say the original diva, Suzanne Lenglen. The lineage definitely includes Bobby Riggs, Pancho Gonzales, Ilie Nastase (of course), Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Goran Ivanisevic and most recently, Marat (“oh how we love you so”) Safin. Last year all-time good guy Gustavo Kuerten retired after losing in the first round of Roland Garr’s. Safin, who lost in the second round in Paris, will play on through the rest of the season. But this was his last RG.
One of the great up and down players of all time, he beat Sampras to capture the ’00 U.S. Open, faded and then struggled with injuries, and then beat another local favorite, Lleyton Hewitt, to win the ’05 Aussie. Safin always bristled at being called an underachiever and loved to be blunt and funny. His deadpan sense of humor was second only to Ivanisevic’s.
Not to let us down, his last RG presser featured this little whacky exchange.
NOT EXACTLY GRACIOUS LOSERS: After falling to Josselin Quanna, Marat Safin whined, “I played terrible. He played good. Even though that he just — he almost lost this match. Christmas is today and not the 25th of December.” After losing to Tathiana Garbin, Marion Bartoli blamed her loss on tough conditions. She said that Garbin’s clan would shout when she made errors and added “It’s not sportslike. They’re Italians.” When a reporter noted that her grandfather was from Italy, Bartoli noted “I’m from Corsica.”
GOOD NEWS: The Great Maria (that would be Sharapova) is back.
THE NOT SO GOOD NEWS: So is her grunt.
FOREVER YOUNG: There’s nothing like the first Wednesday – Kids Day – at the French. Giggly, wide-eyed innocents take in every little detail of the glistening world of Grand Slam tennis. And so, hopefully, another generation of fans is born.
THE GLATCH IS HALF EMPTY AND THE GLATCH IS HALF FULL: Appealing American Alexa Glatch was the hero of America’s recent Fed Cup win over the Czech Republic and scored an impressive upset at the French with a win over Flavia Pennetta. She fell to Lourdes Dominguez-Lino on Thursday in two tough sets, and is “only” ranked No. 116, but has a good shot of qualifying for Wimbledon and is the most promising U.S. youngster out there. The Newport Beach product hopes to reach the top 50 or 60 within a year. As for her inspirations, how ’bout Sampras (sweet serve) and Steffi Graf (nasty one-handed backhand slice).
JUST A BUNCH OF PINKOS: Seeing Nadal in his stunning pink shirt brings to mind Maria Sharapova, Chris Evert winning her last French title sporting a classy pink Ellese sweater, Agassi at the U.S. Open and Bud Collins’ pants.
MACHO MAN: Okay, Nadal might not be quite as macho as some NFL linebackers. Still, he is about a masculine fellow tennis has these days. Still, when he wore his stunning pink shirt, homophobic voices were heard.
PRESIDENTIAL DIET ADVICE: During his visit to Roland Garros, the President of Serbia told Jelena Jankovic that “if you eat fruit after a meal you will get fat.”
PAYING THE EMOTIONAL PRICE: Tom Tebutt noted that Serena “feeds off a constant beating up of herself on court to produce tennis that is arguably the best ever by a woman in any generation. She reaches into a reserve of competitive drive that makes her, as a fighter, the equal of the best in women’s tennis history, Monica Seles and Chris Evert among them. But there is a price to pay for expressing it in such a bellicose, visceral manner – and that is the support of the crowd.”
RECORD BOOK: What was the most extraordinary thing about Ivo Karlovic‘s record of 55 aces against Lleyton Hewitt in the first round? 1) That it was on clay. 2) It was 18 more aces than the previous French Open. 3) That the three top ace leaders in history, including Karlovic, Joachim Johansson and Richard Krajicek, all lost their matches (and five of the six record holders in the most aces in a match category lost their matches). 4) Purists note that it was only a record since ’91 when the ATP started counting. (BTW- Karlovic is 0-11 in five setters.)