Victoria Azarenka at Wimbledon: Focusing on my grunt instead of my game is sexist

Should silence be golden in female tennis?
Should silence be golden in female tennis?
Image: Reuters/Jason Reed
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When Belarusian tennis pro Victoria Azarenka lost the Wimbledon quarter-final match in three sets to Serena Williams on Center Court this week (June 7), her post-match commentary about her vocal style of play seemed to attract more attention than the quality of her game.

When asked about the noises she and Williams made during the grueling contest, Azarenka expressed disappointment at the question, remarking that this wasn’t the focus of attention for male tennis players, even though she judged them to be even louder:

I was practicing next to Nadal [Spanish pro male player Rafael Nadal] and he grunts louder than me and nobody noticed it. And why? I don’t understand. Because why? The women on the court, both trying their hardest and giving everything they have and they make a noise. Is that a problem of tennis? It happens in every sport.

Watch her lambast the questioner:

Williams admitted that the crowd’s response to their vocals proved distracting, and at points the umpire had to ask spectators to quiet down. Nevertheless, Azarenka insisted on keeping the focus of questions on the game:

I think it’s maybe it’s time to just put it aside and not talk about it all the time because this is not what is important when there are two players playing on the Centre Court. We got to look a little bit past that, and see ‘Oh my God, Serena [Williams] played 24 aces.’ Did any of the guys do [it] maybe in that match? Look at the good stuff, stop bringing this, you know, ridiculous stuff. Let’s put aside the noise and how she looks, or how—and look at the game. And the game proved itself today.

It isn’t the first time Azarenka has faced questions about making loud noises on the court. The issue of grunting (and whether it proves a distraction to players and fans) has been so hotly debated in female tennis that the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) considered policing the practice in 2012. The idea was to measure the volume of players’ screams with a device called a ”grunt-o-meter” and create a rule limiting acceptable noise levels. It also considered promoting breathing techniques in tennis schools so aspiring players would learn early how to compete quietly, since it seems hard to convince stars to change their habits. The proposal wasn’t implemented.

Loud noises made by male tennis pros like Novak Djokovic and Nadal have attracted far less scrutiny (Roger Federer did complain about Nadal’s grunts). Some grunt control advocates like former tennis pro Martina Navratilova consider noise-making a form of “cheating,”, and argue that female players get more heat about it because they tend to be louder and more abrasive.

It is possible that Azarenka and Williams’s audience were responding to the outstanding quality of play, rather than–or perhaps in addition to—the sounds. Behold some of the most spectacular points from the showdown: