I always tell myself that I’m never going to get involved with the two most ridiculous debates in tennis, grunting and equal prize money, but just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
Let me preface this by saying this is not going to be a rant about the aesthetics of grunting. Some find it annoying, while others, such as myself, aren’t bothered by it at all. That’s completely acceptable; I’m not here to force my opinion on others, nor would I appreciate others forcing their opinion on me. However, I am here to address facts.
It is because of this that I felt the need to write this, against my better judgement; despite the fact that this non-issue has already been beaten to hell and back, the commentary on it points towards another, even more glaring issue in tennis.
Last night, during the Australian Open fourth round match between Sloane Stephens and Bojana Jovanovski, Pam Shriver (and others later) took issue with what they believed to be Jovanovski’s excessive grunting. Shriver then proceeded to state, as if it were fact, that although Sharapova and Azarenka have never been called for hindrance due to grunting, it has happened to lower-ranked players.
This can’t be further from the truth for two reasons; firstly, this has never happened and secondly, grunting is not, and never has been, EXPLICITLY discussed in rule 26 of the ITF Rules of Tennis, or the hindrance rule.
As a USTA certified official, I have a card in my wallet that says I’m semi-qualified to speak on such matters and I intend to use it to dissect, and perhaps educate some, as to why. While not a professional umpire, I’ve not only attended numerous USTA seminars and yearly trainings, but discussed many matters of law with those certified higher than me. The understanding in regards to what hindrance is and is not is shockingly low in the tennis commentating community; I find this to be a problem in tennis more often than other sports that I watch. The casual fans look to these people to guide them as to what makes our sport so awesome, yet, their reluctance to fact-check and merely examine the FACTS, not their opinions masquerading as fact, is what makes this an issue.
Let’s break it all down. First, the text of the hindrance rule, from pg. 12 of the ITF Rules of Tennis:
If a player if hindered in playing the point by a deliberate act of the opponent(s) the player shall win the point.
However, the point shall be replayed if a player is hindered in playing the point by either an unintentional act of the opponent(s), or something outside the player’s own control (not including a permanent fixture).
An appendix (pg. 19) in the 2013 USTA Officials’ Friend at Court rulebook, which has been sitting on my coffee table since it came in the mail two days ago, adds several comments to of its own to contribute to clarity in regards to judgements of hindrance, which will prove quite useful in proving my points later:
USTA Comment 26.1: What is the difference between a deliberate and an unintentional act? Deliberate means a player did what the player intended to do, even if the result was unintended. An example is a player who hits a short lob in doubles and loudly shouts “back” just before an opponent hits an overhead. Unintentional refers to an act over which a player has no control, such as a hat blowing off or a scream after a wasp sting.
USTA Comment 26.2: Can a player’s own actions be the basis for that player claiming a let or a hindrance? No. Nothing a player does entitles that player to call a let. For example, a player is not entitled to call a let because the player breaks a string, the player’s hat falls off, or a ball in the player’s pocket falls out.
Ruling an objective hindrance is perhaps one of the easiest things an umpire can do in his/her job, purely because the language of the rule itself is quite clear. Before I dissect why Jovanovski’s and others’ grunting, while it might be many things, is not hindrance, I’m first going to explain how and why hindrance has been correctly applied in the past.
Exhibit A: Serena Williams – Smantha Stosur: 2011 US Open Final
The point penalty is valid and completely correct due to Serena shouting “Come on!”; verbal shouts of encouragement such as “Come on!” are deliberate. Using the example stated in USTA Comment 26.1 that I discussed above, it is a deliberate hindrance and loss of point because, although I doubt Serena deliberately intended to hinder Stosur, she ACTED deliberately by shouting “Come on!”. It might sound redundant, but this is a black and white case.
Exhibit B: Matt Ebden – Mardy Fish: 2012 Indian Wells R3
Mardy Fish fell victim in exactly the same situation six months later. Serving at deuce in the second set against Australian Matt Ebden, Fish yelled “Come on!” upon hitting a volley that he thought Ebden wasn’t getting to.
“First off, it was totally my fault,” he said, as reported by Chris Chase of Yahoo, after the match. “I made a mistake, and I would have been totally fine with playing a let on it. I was just trying to fire myself up, to be honest with you.”
Exhibit C: Maria Kirilenko – Maria Sharapova: 2012 Indian Wells QF
Easiest call of the lot. Kirilenko’s racket tapping is a clearly deliberate action; much like shouts of “Come on!”, even if the player does not intend to hinder their opponent, it’s treated as a deliberate hindrance.
Exhibit D: Serena Williams – Virginie Razzano: 2012 Roland Garros R1
Here is where some are going to incorrectly state that grunting can be called as a hindrance. I’m going to try and make this distinction as clear as possible.
Razzano’s penalty draws from a verbal utterance of pain (which is akin to the wasp sting example discussed in USTA Comment 26.1), NOT a grunt. It’s treated as a let in the first instance due to the fact that such verbal utterances fall under unintentional hindrance. Razzano was asked if she needed the trainer after the first instance, and she declined. She was then correctly warned that if it happened again, it would be a point penalty, which it was. The same logic applies in other instances of unintentional hindrance, such as loose balls or windblown hats.
Secondly, the noise itself is separate from Razzano’s grunt. She grunted while hitting her shot, paused, and the hindrance comes as Serena is preparing to hit and/or hitting HER shot. Razzano is not penalized for what she does while hitting her own shot.
Now that I’ve discuss what hindrance is, I need to address why grunting is not. Hindrance exists because a player cannot act as they please with an intent to distract their opponent. Any noise which BEGINS when the ball is in the opponent’s court can be treated as hindrance; a grunt begins when a player is paying their own shot.
An umpire cannot rule if an extended grunt hindered a player in any way because, unlike the examples above, it is not an objective case. The Code, another appendix in the USTA Friend at Court, is NOT a part of the ITF Rules of Tennis. It shall be followed by players in un-officiated matches until an official is present to assume some responsibilities. While grunting is addressed in The Code, it only mentions that a player may be warned in an extreme case if and only if an official receives a complaint from the opponent. Only an official may rule if further noises can be considered hindrance.
When players say that they are genuinely not bothered or do not notice their opponent grunting, I believe them. While some spectators may find it an irritant or unsporting, that does not give an official grounds to call hindrance. It also needs to be said that the volume of said noise is irrelevant in determining if hindrance has taken place; it is the timing of said noise that is crucial in determining if hindrance should be called.
On Jovanovski, I watched her three-hour match against Mona Barthel out on a field court at the US Open last year in grueling midday heat. I was seated right next the fence and her volume was a non-issue. There’s another thing to mention here, and that is on-court microphones; mainly used to pick up the calls of the lines people for the viewers, they exacerbate the situation.
Following Stephens’ match, Brad Gilbert took the airwaves on ESPN to say how glad he was that Stephens’ kept her head and “beat that screamer.” Ever the defender of injustice everywhere, I called him out on Twitter:
@bgtennisnation "Beat that screamer" ? She has a name, Brad. I'm sure you would never disrespect a higher-profile player like that, right?—
unseeded & looming (@unseededlooming) January 21, 2013
And got this in response:
@unseededlooming good point but she is so loud—
Brad Gilbert (@bgtennisnation) January 21, 2013
“Good point.” So he’s basically confirming the fact that he completely disrespected her because she isn’t a well-known player? That’s nice. It’s a question that needs to be asked; would he have referred to Jovanovski as such if she were well-known, or not playing an American?
There are reasons why not just anyone off the street can be a tennis official. One’s opinions on certain issues cannot detract from his/her ability to judge matters of law and matters of fact in any way. If commentators and journalists alike just took a little time to realize this and, *gasp*, actually pick up a rulebook, there might be a little more clarity for all involved.