Monday, July 13, 2009

I scream, you scream...

I suppose it all started with Monica Seles, whose grunt I found amusing, but I realize not everyone felt as I did. I simply never got tired of hearing that unearthly sound come out of her. There used to be a Seles website--I think it is gone now--that delivered Monica's unique grunt the moment you clicked on the home page. And my all-time favorite American Express commercial was the U.S. Open ad in which Monica went to a store and the clerk grunted the entire time she was checking her out.

Seles made a lame--and embarrassing--attempt to make fun of herself at her International Tennis Hall of Fame induction. Her grunting--in itself a topic of controversy when Seles was playing--is now part of a much wider context in women's tennis.

Seles grunted, though her grunt was unusually loud and was a borderline shout. Grunting, on the whole, however, is
easy on the ears. Dinara Safina grunts. Justine Henin grunted. Unfortunately, the sports press, as well as multiple fans, insist on calling screaming "grunting." It most certainly is not.

Many women have been quick to say "If you stop the women from grunting, are you going to stop the men?" They miss the point entirely. There is no reason whatsoever to stop Rafael Nadal and David Nalbandian from grunting, just as there was no reason to stop Henin, and there is no reason to stop Safina. These particular fans need to understand a simple fact: The men on the ATP Tour do not scream. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am a feminist activist, but the fact remains that people are not disturbed by simple grunting, which is what some men on the ATP do.

I do, however, join other feminists in being disturbed by a different issue--that the media has paid more attention to WTA players' screaming than they have ever paid to their tennis. I find that offensive, but predictable.

But back to the screaming. It is that, and not the grunting, that disturbs people. Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, and Michelle Larcher De Brito all scream--some more than others. Larcher De Brito has been singled out lately because her screams have been measured, and they last longer than the screams of the other women.

Martina Navratilova calls such screaming "cheating" because, she maintains, the noise prevents an opponent from hearing the ball struck. Many tennis writers are vehemently opposed to the screaming, as are many fans. I don't enjoy hearing it, either, and when two of the screamers play each other (remember that 2005 Wimbledon semifinal?), I find it difficult to listen.

However...the great majority of the players who have been interviewed about Sharapova, Larcher De Brito, etc., say that the screaming does not bother them at all--that they do not even notice it. My guess is that it bothers some, and does not bother many. Interestingly, if this were an ATP issue, I'm sure that those who said the noise bothered them would be singled out as wimps and excuse-makers. In the case of the WTA, however, there appears to be a movement to cater to those who are bothered by noise.

It is not "wrong" to be bothered by the screaming, just as it is not "right" to not be bothered by it. Different things affect different people in different ways. The solution, it would seem, is for those players who are bothered by the screaming to complain to the umpire.

A more interesting question, to me, is: Why are the players screaming? I have done a lot of thinking about this culture of screaming, and my best theory is this: As tennis became more and more powerful and more physical demands were made on players, it became natural for some of them to grunt loudly. But grunting is not "feminine" and therefore it is a no-no in the WTA culture. And so some players scream. There are, I'm sure, many who think that such shrieking is not "feminine," either, but it is probably more acceptable than loud grunting. may just come natural for some of the players to scream.

Should screaming (not grunting) be banned? If you think it should, I would like to know who is going to tell Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova to stop doing it. Azarenka and Larcher De Brito have already said that they will not stop, though Larcher De Brito was noticeably quieter at Wimbledon, where she was placed on courts as far away as possible from The Important People.

I also think there is more to the screaming than an unconscious fear of not passing the femininity test. As the general culture becomes more and more intrusive, it seems only logical that the sports culture would, also. Do I like it? Not really, but I have gotten used to it, just as I eventually got used to the demise of the wooden racquet and to multiple injury time-outs. As far as I am concerned, there are far more pressing problems for the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour than how long Larcher De Brito's screams last. With several top players not able to serve, an awkwardly reorganized tour calendar, and the use of sex as a marketing tool, I'd say there are plenty of very important matters to be addressed.

In the meantime, I suppose Michelle can scream away.


Anonymous said...

i loved watching Seles play. But for me she was a SCREAMER. Congrats on her induction and for giving her throphy's to the tennis hall of fame.

Diane said...

Her grunts were so loud and long (and varied) that they certainly had the effect of screaming, yes. She was one of a kind.

Marija said...

Good article, Diane. I love the photo you chose to illustrate it. When I was like 6 years old playing tennis in my backyard with a friend, we were screaming just because we were watching Seles doing it. :)

Diane said...

Thanks, Marija.

I think Monica influenced people in more ways than one...

Overhead Spin said...

Perhaps the reason why some players "scream" and others "grunt" is because of the tonal quality of each players voice. If you listen to the speaking voices of the grunters as against the screamers you will find that the grunters have a low tonal voice whilst the screamers have a higher pitched speaking voice. I think this is also the first time I have ever heard Serena's grunt described as a scream. That is a grunt. Safina's grunt sounds like someone is killing her out there rather than her playing tennis. It actually sounds a bit boudouirish (sp?)