During the 2009 French Open Tennis Tournament Portuguese teen tennis star Michelle Larcher de Brito made a stir with her elongated “shrieks” when she strikes the ball. Wimbledon officials are now considering making a rule banning loud grunting for female players. While she claims it is just “part of the game” opponents and fans say otherwise.
As a former collegiate tennis player and coach, I get the distracting and annoying nature of loud grunting by an opponent. That is one side of the issue. Another side of this issue is the problematic and gendered nature of this discussion and pending rule.
First, male players on tour also grunt upon impact, therefore a rule should be equally applied to both men and women. However, there has been no parallel discussion of a rule application to the men’s tournament (although Connors, and Agassi were criticized for their noises). Second, the way Larcher de Brito’s grunts are being constructed in the media as “shrieks”,”screams”, and “annoying squeals”… it appears that males players grunts are expected. Third, this isn’t the first time the discussion of a “grunt/shriek rule” for female tennis players has surfaced. If you recall, in the ’90’s Monica Seles was the original purveyor of loud grunting on impact…and while there was much grumbling then, no rules were enacted. Maria Sharapova was also criticized early on for her grunting, but that seemed to subside as she took over the Kournikova mantle as the “poster girl” of the WTA.
Many scholars have documented how female athletes have to constantly negotiate the tension between the movements, noises, muscles, and bodies that are needed to perform optimally and adhering to a narrow ideal of femininity. Clearly, loud shrieking is NOT feminine and therefore is troubling and must be regulated (i.e., “make the offending women act more ladylike so we can enjoy the match!).
Update to post: June 24, 2009: NPR weighs in on issue “Tennis, The Grunting Game?” in which sports journalist Christine Brennan gives her take, and another commentary by Frank Deford “It’s Time For Tennis Players To Make Some Noise”. You can also read Pat Griffin’s take on her blog.