Maria Sharapova has faced criticism before for her on-court grunting, but she met her match in Michelle Larcher de Brito.
There’s a pleasingly soporific buzz that settles over the All England Club on those charmed afternoons when the sun sidles out, and the sensible jackets are zipped back into their pouches, and the play can begin to sound like a metronome that someone has considerately wrapped in a nice blanket and removed to an adjoining room.
And then Maria Sharapova starts to play. Jenny Jobson, blessed with much-coveted seats on Wednesday, had been gripped by the two previous matches, but at the entrance into court two of the tall Russian she headed straight to the cafe for some strawberries.
“I’ve seen Sharapova play before on Centre Court, and when she gets going it’s just deafening, I hate it,” she said. “And then we heard on the radio that the lady she was playing today was even louder, we decided to give it a miss for a bit. It drives me mad.”
Sharapova has faced criticism for her on-court grunting throughout much of her career, at one point being recorded at 105 decibels, variously judged as equivalent to the noise of a helicopter, a pneumatic drill and a lion’s roar.
The number three seed is by no means the only yelper in the women’s tour – Victoria Azarenka, seeded two, is also in possession of a notable holler that one commentator said was reminiscent of “Mickey Mouse in distress”.
But she has never before played Portugal’s Michelle Larcher de Brito, who, though a considerably lower-ranked player, is a grunter of championship class, with her 109 decibels record adjudged, according to the internationally recognised yardstick of such matters, to be “a little quieter than a chainsaw”.
Farewell, then, to the stately thwack-ponk-bonk-applause soundtrack that had accompanied Caroline Wozniacki’s defeat by Petra Cetkovská, or the earlier surprise triumph of Dustin Brown over the former champion Lleyton Hewitt — and hello ear-defenders.
From the first ball hit in anger, there was no question the encounter was set to be a classic.
“Yelp!” “Yowl!” “Whoooooooo!” “YEEEEOOOOOOO-ooooo….” Sharapova smacked the ball with a whoop, Larcher de Brito battered it back with something like a long howl. They were not shrieks, not screams and certainly not grunts. If anything, the effect was almost operatic, starting on a high soprano burst and collapsing into a prolonged, dying fall. It was just a pity that no observer appeared to have brought their portable grunt-o-meter (a device that, granted, seems not to be listed on most household retailers’ websites) to record whether, faced at last with a truly formidable rival, either player had raised her game to record-breaking heights.
“Oh for goodness’ sake,” said Tanya McDonald, waiting with a small huddle of fans for play to pause so she could retake her seat. “They are both just putting their full effort into it. It’s not interfering with anyone’s experience, is it? Just a few oohs and aahs. If anything, I would say it’s adding to it.”
There are plenty, of course, who question the purpose of all the hollering, not least Wozniacki, who has wondered aloud in the past whether some players do it on purpose to put off their opponents, saying: “They don’t do it in practice and then they come into the match and they grunt. I understand if they do it in practice and in matches, that’s different. But I think they [officials] could definitely cut it.”
The WTA, which runs the women’s tour, has also indicated that it would like to train young players to play more quietly, but while Wimbledon’s new chief executive Richard Lewis has said that grunting is something that, ideally, “would diminish rather than increase”, he stressed that there were no plans to try to discourage it at Wimbledon.
Unhappily for her, in any case, Sharapova soon had reason enough to howl, thanks to the determined efforts of her opponent, a qualifier and a slippery patch of grass on which she took a number of tumbles.
She dropped the first set and, after a valiant battle at the death to save four match points, during which the shriek took on a lower, growlier tone, she slumped to a straight-sets defeat against Larcher de Brito, who is ranked 131 in the world.
At least she can console herself with the fact that when it came to yelping, the historic encounter was almost impossible to call.