The invented 'outrage' over grunting is a prime example of sensationalism; it is an attempt to create a controversy and bring attention to tennis in a negative way. Players, with very few exceptions, repeatedly say that opponents' grunting does not bother them; that their own grunting is natural or habitual and cannot be changed without affecting their game. The ITF, ATP and WTA rulebooks show that grunting is not a hindrance. We know that microphones on court amplify on-court sound for TV and radio coverage, but rarely is that fact mentioned in the media when discussing the volumes of the grunts. And anyone claiming regarding a player that, 'she doesn't grunt in practice' or 'she has gotten worse over the last three years,' has yet to show that consistently with any player - YouTube clips and witnesses generally prove these statements inaccurate.
And it is only female players that create this problem, perhaps since the grunts of their male counterparts, while sometimes as loud, are delivered at a more palatable pitch. Now, I appreciated the earplugs jokes and porn voiceover parallels as much as the next gal - the first few times. But what is the benefit to the sport when the topic of grunting (or 'screeching' or 'screaming') is brought up every time someone strikes a racquet?
The WTA appeased critics by committing to work with younger kids to ensure their breathing is controlled. This is not a bad idea, because fans now have it ingrained in their minds that female players screech and that that's bad. But one can only hope that the choice to address this issue was made after examining actual trends in WTA player grunting, rather than going by the number of questions related to grunting in press conference transcripts.
The myth of grunting as a cheating tactic is not the only way some (not always excluding myself) try to inject negativity into tennis to make it seem more combatively exciting. It has become popular to harp on the friendship exhibited by top players on both sides of the draw. We try to dissect quotes from Federer and Nadal to find some sign that they actually despise each other when praising one another profusely. "Surely, it's not champion-like to have a rivalry while sharing plane rides to tournaments," we think. "Obviously, Andy Murray will not win a major until he stops worshipping Nadal and being buddy-buddy with Djokovic." (Oops). We know that every time Serena Williams makes a veiled insult, she is talking about Sharapova, right? And no amount of photos of them smiling together will prove otherwise. Because, for some reason, we really want them to dislike one another when going into battle.
Next time you're lamenting a lack of trash-talking in tennis because the niceties players say about each other don't make for a true rivalry, 'like in other sports,' ask yourself why you need this. Unlike the fan community, most players have proven they can rise above petty fighting to want to win a big match for themselves rather than to defeat a rival they dislike. Some of the best matches of recent years, from the famous Federer-Nadal 2008 Wimbledon Final, to the 2011 Australian Open Round of 16 epic between Kuznetsova and Schiavone, to Saturday's Djokovic-Wawrinka battle, ended in a warm handshake or a hug. If the players don't need to dislike one another, or to be nasty in the media to psych themselves up to produce great tennis, why do we want them to do it?
I'm not calling for an attempt to retain the traditional image of tennis as a patrician sport played by calm rich people on secluded manicured lawns. The "limited" sponsor tags on all those Wimbledon whites have ruined that image a long time ago, as has the reach of tennis into all social strata throughout the world. I am certainly not suggesting any real issues be swept under the rug to sustain a "nice" image. Next time Bernard Tomic goes on a joyride, I'll be right there with a bad joke. Next time gambling or some form of illegal performance enhancement comes to light about a tennis player, I'll be asking why it happened and how we can stop it.
But instead of looking for a storm in a teacup or a cheater behind every augmented exhalation, why not show appreciation for the work athletes in our sport put forth physically and mentally to represent themselves, their countries and tennis the best they can, not only on but also off the court?
While other major athletes make the news for doping, criminal assaults and racist outbursts, the biggest controversies for major tennis stars are an unfortunate outfit or an outburst at an umpire. The level of class, sportsmanship and camaraderie tennis has, especially compared to other sports, is something that needs to be retained and promoted. And that appreciation and spirit have to be preserved not only by players and officials, but even more so by journalists, commentators and fans.