There’s Something About Maria
by Jake Wrenn
Maria Sharapova by Jason Wyatt Frederick
Go to YouTube, turn the volume way up, and search for Maria Sharapova. You might expect to find a video of her 2004 Wimbledon win over Serena Williams , or a video of her 2012 Australian Open match against Victoria Azarenka . These videos are there, but it takes some scrolling to find them. What you’ll find first on YouTube are GQ photo shoots, with the Russian-born tennis player in black high heels and lingerie. You’ll find her playing ping pong in a leggy dress against Ellen DeGeneres. You’ll find Sports Illustrated swimsuit videos from 2006, which have accrued thousands of comments from virginal basement-dwellers saying I’d totally hit that—the anonymous sexism we’ve come to expect from internet comments, like bitch needs to keep her mouth shut. You’ll find videos of interviewers looking at her knees and asking leading questions about the grunt she makes each time she hits the ball—a deep, carnal noise which has turned her into the target for ridicule and the punch-line of inappropriate jokes. You might be surprised to find out how little Sharapova’s image actually has to do with tennis, and how overtly sexualized the world of women’s tennis has become.
The professional tennis match, looking beyond the perfected displays of hand-eye coordination and abilities to endure the physical tolls of high-repetition movement, is a mental game. Tennis is not unlike chess, as it has been compared to on occasions too frequent to count. Leave it to analysts to add depth to their favorite sports by comparing them to centuries-old board games with the only similarities being two lonely, islandy players and the intrinsic need to use one’s noodle. But it is true: to be good at tennis, one needs to think—think about this shot, and the opponent’s countershot, while strategizing your counter-countershot while thinking about… Well, it goes on, until we’re brain dead trying to picture what n to the n to the n to the n would look like, until we’re staring at something like a television inside a television or, heaven forbid, considering things like metasports .
To make all of these mental calculations, all the while trying to return a ball hit to you at over one hundred miles per hour, is a tornado of consciousness, a thing of whiny, mental breakdowns: picture a child crying over a dropped ice cream cone. Quite simply, to consider all which needs to be considered, this shot then the next, and act accordingly, would be impossible.
The best players, the men and women who time and time again make it to the final rounds of that which gets televised on ESPN12 between the hours of 4 and 8 AM, do not think . They act. Instinct takes over their body. Tennis is similar to every other game, in which each player needs to have or fake that special blend of intelligence and physical ability, except for one significant difference: the abandonment of self-consciousness and the loss of control to pure instinct or muscle memory .
Part of that abandonment of self-consciousness: grunting, particularly by women. Female grunting has been a source of controversy in recent years , specifically surrounding Maria Sharapova, among others. Here’s Sharapova, for those who don’t have cable or generally ignore the fine insomnia programming of ESPN12 or don’t watch tennis: winner of three Grand Slams, ranked top ten for almost the entire first decade of the third millennium, four times ranked number one in the world , hits the ball 120 miles per hour . She also grunts at 100 decibels. The highest decibel level ever recorded in a stadium of any sport is around 130, which is considered well above the threshold of pain (most audiologists agree that no unprotected ear should be subjected to decibel levels over 135 or risk permanent damage). Maria Sharapova’s Grunt is only ten percent quieter than the average tennis stadium. Her audible enthusiasm while hitting the ball is only marginally less than the shushed and usually awkward claps and cheers of the roughly ten thousand people who travelled to the Australian Open and paid top dollar for their ticket to see her win that third Grand Slam. This phenomenon has been politely ignored until recent years, when Sharapova’s Grunt, among others’, has been labeled by players and fans alike as distracting, uncomfortable, and just plain weird.
Women’s tennis has a latent yet politely unspoken sexualized component, which seems to have escalated over the last two decades. A large part of the inherent sexuality in women’s tennis is its own invention. Venus Williams showed up to the 2010 French Open in a sporty, black negligee. She designs most of her own clothing, which ends up looking more like club-wear than an appropriate outfit for a professional player. Seeing rhinestones, sequins and invisible underwear almost begs to have that sit-down where we discuss a time and a place. Serena Williams wore a pair of $40,000 earrings to the US Open in 2005, and ending up having to stop play in the first round after one of them fell off . Anna Kournikova has never won a WTA singles title, and yet is one of tennis’ most publicized athletes; her modeling career has almost entirely overshadowed her tennis career. In 2001, Anna Kournikova had an email virus named after her which infected an estimated 15 million computers; readers were invited to download a picture simply called ‘Annakournikova.jpg.vbs’ which would infect the computer and send the email to everyone in their Outlook address book. Ashley Harkleroad compensated for her comparatively mediocre play by taking the cover of the August 2008 issue of Playboy. Sexuality is highly prevalent in professional women’s tennis; however, the grunt is not a part of it. The stigmatization of the grunt seems to be a result of the over-sexualization of professional women’s tennis, and our nation or the world’s inability to separate these noises from what may be heard between the sheets of any of these professional players.
Understanding why Sharapova’s Grunt is necessary to her game requires a dissection of the way the game is played, how instinct or decision translates to the fluidity of this shot then the next. I make no official claim to understanding what fully goes on in the heads of the world’s top players—that Zen-like discipline of being able to hit the ball the way they hit the ball day in and day out—but I have played my fair share of tennis and have felt personally what professional players call being “in the zone.” Playing tennis elicits a strange sensation, something that I have never experienced outside of the sport: a complete drop in internal monologue, a quieting of brain activity, a resistance to active thinking, the body being in a form of auto-pilot . The best players are able to access this Zen-like state at will, a deep meditation during which crowd noise ceases to exist, they forget they are on camera in front of both their fans and their opponent’s fans, the only thing in their vision or consideration being the net, their opponent, their racquet, the white lines, and the ball. Sharapova feels no qualms or insecurities at belting out a grunt which overpowers every fan in the stadium because there is no world outside of her game; Sharapova’s Grunt is merely another muscle employed to both control and return any shot hit in her general direction. An exhale, loud or quiet, produces power and eases muscles; weight-lifters are instructed to exhale heavily and grunt while lifting.
-  Her first Grand Slam Title, won in the pre-YouTube days where people watched sports in the arena or on television and kept their comments to themselves or to those in close proximity. ↩
-  Hailed as one of the most lop-sided matches in Grand Slam tournament history. ↩
-  “You wouldn’t want to be in the hotel room next to Maria Sharapova on her wedding night! The bloody noise would drive you mad!” ↩
-  Get the Advil ready. Sports theorems are complex to the point of almost-irrelevance: zero-sum game theory and matrix games, dominance factors, the homicidal chauffeur, the prisoner’s dilemma, p(t) functions mapping probability of a given party winning against time. This is the type of smart for the sake of smart stuff that gets taught in undergrad econ classes and is mostly forgotten the day after the final. ↩
-  See Tracy Austin discussing her 1979 US Open win in her book, Beyond Center Court: My Story, “I immediately knew what I had done, which was to win the US Open, and I was thrilled,” an exploration into vapidity already picked apart famously by a disappointed David Foster Wallace. ↩
-  Two seemingly exclusive premises, yet true for almost all professional tennis players: the majority of them were born with a racquet in their hand, so to speak, and have training regimes so intense as to be near-masochistic. ↩
-  To be clear, it’s not just females who grunt, although they’re the ones who seem to get all the guff about it: see Andy Murray’s serve, Roger Federer’s ‘come on,’ Andre Agassi’s yelp. Rafael Nadal grunts so much that the programmers of Grand Slam Tennis for Wii made it a part of the soundtrack. ↩
-  David Foster Wallace on Michael Joyce in 1995: “You are invited to try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it’s hard.” A little disingenuous coming from him, but you and I can still imagine. ↩
-  About 1/6 the speed of sound. ↩
-  Serena Williams: “It’s a lot of bling to play with. You got to have the bling.” ↩
-  This claim will go largely uncited, somewhat of a messy, ethos-based ‘trust me.’ Player philosophy is kept so shallow that we’re stuck listening to Andy Roddick’s talk on tennis using catchphrases and buzz words like happy medium and keeping things on an even keel and trying not to try too hard, almost telling in the sense that it is so very un-telling. ↩
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