Ladies, save the screaming for the bedroom!

britoA 16-YEAR-OLD Portuguese tennis player tipped as a future great, Michelle Larcher de Brito, emits a wail while hitting shots that seems to last longer than it takes the ball to reach the other side of the net. Sometimes her moans are loud enough to be heard three courts away.

Her decibel level has not yet been officially recorded but she was so noisy during the third round of the French Open last month that her opponent, Ara-vane Rezaï of France, complained to the umpire.

Mohammed el-Jennati, the Moroccan official, issued an unofficial warning. Larcher de Brito continued her shrieking and Rezaï made further complaints, leading to a Grand Slam supervisor attending the court.

No further action was taken and Rezaï eventually won 7-6, 6-2. Larcher de Brito, who has been handed a wild card for Wimbledon, was booed off the court.

Tennis officials are now calling foul on grunting. The problem they face is determining whether a noisy exhalation of air is natural or done on purpose to put off an opponent.

Although officials can already award a point against grunting players if they are deemed to have hindered an opponent, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) is considering whether to make “noise hindrance” part of its code of conduct.

If so, persistent grunters would forfeit points first, then a whole game and ultimately perhaps a whole match.

Sue Barker, the BBC’s main tennis presenter and a former French Open champion, believes the shriekers are damaging the sport.

“I have lost count of the number of people who have written to me saying grunting spoils their enjoyment of a match,” she said. “It’s unattractive; it’s distracting. I would like to see it ultimately done away with. But while they should tighten up the rules, you cannot expect a player to stop immediately.

“Remember when Monica Seles got to her only Wimbledon final, in 1992, and there was a lot of talk about her grunting. She tried to quieten down in the final and then didn’t play her normal game.”

A curious sexual reversal appears to have arisen in players’ expressions of effort. Jimmy Connors, a Grand Slam champion in the 1970s and 1980s, was an early exponent of serve-and-grunt.

In 1988, Ivan Lendl complained about Andre Agassi making too much noise when they played in the US Open. “The noise threw my mental game,” Lendl said. “When Agassi went for a big shot, his grunt was much louder. It threw off my timing.”

More recently, the notable grunters have generally been women. Venus and Serena Williams were closely matched at 85-90 decibels.

Seles was reckoned to hit more than 93 decibels. Maria Sharapova was the outstanding grunt champion, on occasion breaking 100 decibels – well above the level regarded as potentially damaging to hearing. Sharapova says she has been grunting since the age of four and cannot help it.

What distinguishes Larcher de Brito is not only the volume of her wails, but their persistence. “This is the main issue in her case and makes her different from those who have made noise before,” said Bill Babcock, Grand Slam director at the ITF.

“The noise extends into the hitting preparation time of her opponent, and that creates problems. The events at Roland Garros [the location of the French Open] have heightened the issue.”

The young player believes rules penalising such vocalisation of effort would be unduly restrictive. “I don’t think it would be fair if you’re not allowed to shriek or scream or grunt. It’s part of the game,” said Larcher de Brito.

“I’m 16 and I’m still learning. Maybe I can eventually put it under control. I don’t know, but I’ll try. It comes from Seles; it comes from Sharapova. It comes from great players.”

Larcher de Brito has been schooled at the Nick Bollettieri academy in Florida, which produced champions such as Seles, Sharapova and Agassi.

Bollettieri, 77, insists he does not encourage his players to make noise because of the effect it has on the opposition.

“My staff and I have never taught grunting,” he said. “We have always taught the proper way to breathe in and out. Players grunt because it helps them release energy and keep focused. It is something that they do naturally. It isn’t something that is done deliberately to hurt their opponents.”

However, he agrees the time is right to review the legislation governing noise. “There is a need for some sort of regulation,” he said. “Players on both the men’s and women’s tours grunt. Something eventually needs to be done.”

Big noises

How the grunters compare, in decibels

Lion’s roar 110

Maria Sharapova 101

Monica Seles 93.2

Serena Williams 88.9

Lindsay Davenport 88

Venus Williams 85

Victoria Azarenka 83.5

Elena Bovina 81

Anna Kournikova 78.5

Kim Clijsters 75

Elena Dementieva 73


Courtesy  The Times.

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