As in previous years, the 2011 U.S. Open delivered more than its share of memorable (and rainy) moments. On one end of the spectrum, we witnessed Rafael Nadal exhibit class and grace in the face of defeat, praising finals champion Novak Djokovic and taking full responsibility for his own shortcomings. On the other, we saw Serena Williams deliver an emotional outburst after being charged with a hindrance penalty for screaming “come on!” while the ball was still in play.
This latter moment is emblematic of a broader debate in tennis, in which officials are considering a crackdown on high-decibel player grunts during matches.
"Chief grunter non-gratis is 16-year-old Portuguese tennis star Michelle Larcher de Brito," who was so noisy during the 2009 French Open that her opponent complained and an unofficial warning was issued.
Unlike tennis’s early grunters – including Monica Seles and Jimmy Connors – Larcher de Brito’s shrill sounds are seemingly unprecedented in volume and duration, extending well after she hits the ball over the net, leaving opponents sometimes struggling to hear anything else. “You depend on the sound that the ball makes when it hits your racket, and then you see it,” explains tennis great Martina Navratilova, who objects to the unfair advantage and spreading vogue of mega-grunting players. “They’re making noises as if they’re lifting[…]300 pounds,” she says. “The ball is not that heavy.”
One British sportswriter observed, “I went to watch Michelle Larcher de Brito, aka, ‘The Princess of Wails’ practice the other day, and she was quiet as a mouse.” "The writer wondered, "Is the gist of her grunting “a form of gamesmanship or is it simply a release of tension?”
Larcher de Brito’s wail has been measured at 109 decibels, a whisker beneath a lion’s roar of 110 decibels. Tennis champ Maria Sharapova, also the subject of grunter gripes, clocks in at 101 decibels. “Noise hindrance” is being considered by The International Tennis Federation as an addition to its code of conduct, and grievous grunters could find themselves forfeiting points, a game and possibly an entire match.
Larcher de Brito insists she’s not being irresponsible, and that rules prohibiting grunting would be too restrictive. “I don’t think it would be fair if you’re not allowed to shriek or scream or grunt,” she said. “It’s part of the game.”
Tell us what you think: Does excessive grunting give tennis players an unfair advantage over opponents? If so, does pro tennis need a no-grunting rule? What were some of your favorite moments from this year’s U.S. Open? For more conversations about responsibility in sports, visit ResponsibleSports.com.
(A portion of this story was previously published as “Should Tennis Players Cut the Racket?” on The Responsibility Project on 8/4/09)