The female tennis star kills it on the court, yet some fans are more concerned about the noises she's making. Are their complaints rational or totally sexist?

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Updated: July 08, 2015
Corbis Images

Maria Sharapova just reached her fifth Wimbledon semi-final. Being a finalist in your sport's greatest competition at all is amazing, but doing it five times proves what an athlete the former Shape cover model is-not that you'd know any of that from social media, however. Instead of focusing on her wicked serve, tennis fans and even some professional announcers are focusing on her on-court vocalizations. British TV presenter Lorraine Kelly summed up the outcry (ha!) when she tweeted, "'Sorry can't watch this tennis match-Sharapova sounds like she's in pain. Must be hideous to play against that level of noise."

Make no mistake, the grunts and shrieks are loud. And it's not just Sharapova-Belarusian star Victoria Azarenka's serve shriek has been clocked at an ear splitting 105 decibels in the past, louder than a jet flyover from 1,000 feet. Certain female players are so notorious for their "level of noise" that fans are now given ear plugs upon entering the stadium. (See: 7 Ways Noise Can Affect Your Health.)

But the thing that many of the complainers miss is that all the noise on court serves a purpose (and it's not to be obnoxious). Tennis pros say that when you hit a ball, a good yell allows you to strike with maximal force. The grunt can also serve to mask the sound of the echo of the ball which can give opponents an aural cue of where it's headed. And, of course, the startling effect of the noise can help psyche out the other player and temporarily throw off their game (which is the other main reason people are anti-grunting). Plus, grunting is perfectly legal under the rules of tennis.

This particular criticism of female tennis pros isn't particularly creative or even new. In the 1992 Wimbledon, Yugoslavian tennis star Monica Seles was famously told to "shut the f*** up" by fellow player Jennifer Capriati because her grunting was so loud. Seles is, in fact, often credited as being the "grunting creator" in women's games. But the anger reached a crescendo in 2009 when Michael Stich, a BBC sports commentator, said that all the noise "sounds disgusting, ugly, unsexy!" As a former tennis champ himself, you'd think he'd have more respect for the pressure on the women. Instead, he added the next day that the only way to stop the animal noises would be to "shoot them."

Heaven forbid that a female athlete not be sexy at all times! But Stich's comments served to highlight not just the irritation over noise, but the sexist problem that has long plagued tennis. Over the years, much of the sports' analysis has focused on how short and tight the players' skirts are instead of their athleticism. And in 2009, the thin, blonde Maria Kirilenko-ranked 59 in the world-was put front and center of all the cameras on the prestigious main court for her matches while the number one seed, Dinara Safina-who also happens to be older and not as model-esque-was relegated to the far back court where there was virtually no attention. Officials from BBC, the broadcaster of Wimbledon, later admitted what everyone had already figured out: When it comes to deciding which court female athletes are assigned to play on, "good looks are a factor."

In all fairness, former world No. 1 player Jimmy Connors is credited as being the ultimate "grunting creator." But even if it started with a man, the vast majority of tennis experts now view grunting as a rampant problem among female players specifically, despite the number of male pros who are guilty of the same act. In fact, Azarenka told BBC, "I was practicing next to Nadal and he grunts louder than me and nobody noticed it." Plus, male tennis players don't receive the same level of scrutiny of their clothing, bodies, or hair (the notable exception being the world-wide admiration for Andre Agassi's flowing Fabio-esque locks).

This double standard for professional athletes needs to stop. Either make yelling illegal for both genders, in all tennis competitions, or stop complaining about the women. Because all this noise about the noise is distracting us from watching these amazing athletes, including Maria Sharapova, do what they do best (and what the grunting helps improve): play tennis.



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