Tennis is all a twitter about the sounds emanating from the five-foot five-inch frame of Michelle Larcher De Brito, the 16-year-old tennis phenom from Portugal. Ms. Larcher De Brito's sounds, variously termed as "shrieks," "wails" and "grunts," have caused a kafuffle in professional tennis of John McEnroe proportions. Ranked 91st in the world, she qualified to play in her first Grand Slam tournament at the 2009 French Open and surprisingly prevailed in her first two matches before losing in the third round at Roland Garros.
Although she apparently has future "winning chances" in women's tennis, her potential has been overshadowed by her current noise quotient. There have been other pro tennis stars who used sound effects to good effect. Maria Sharapova, Monica Seles and both Williams' sisters come to mind, but Larcher De Brito may be in a class of her own when it comes to emitting annoying sounds on the court that linger on until her opponent is about ready to address the ball. International Tennis Federation has a "hindrance" rule if her opponent is ''hindered in playing the point by a deliberate act." If applied, it would cause her to lose a point each time her intentional sounds interfered with an opponent. There is more to Larcher De Brito's performance than her shrieks. In addition to her obvious talent, her attitude and body language show disdain for her opponent, certainly offensive behavior in the pristine world of ladies tennis.
Some of the grand dames of tennis have taken the offensive against "The Grunter." Martina Navratilova said in a recent speech: ''The grunting has reached an unacceptable level. It is cheating, pure and simple. It is time for something to be done.'' Wimbledon officials reportedly talked with Larcher De Brito, and she toned down her "whoops" for her first round match.
While in the short run, Larcher De Brito might be able to cut her decibel level, she has trained her entire short life to make noise while playing the game: "It's always something I've done. I'm going to keep on doing it, because it's really part of my game. I don't mind if people think it's bad or not.'' She also suggested that if the fans didn't like it, they can bring iPods to drown out the noise. She sounds like an arrogant teenager.
Larcher De Brito may think she rules the world, but she is not there yet. Tennis officials can penalize her into shutting up. Her disdain for others will not play well in the endorsement market either, a critical part of a player's earning capacity. She will be shunned and avoided on the tour, tough for any young player.
I would propose an alternative approach to the onslaught of tennis' annoying sounds. Other than golf, tennis is the only major sport where the fans are supposed to quiet down during play. World Team Tennis, a fringe but interesting alternative format, allows cheering like at Yankee Stadium. (Could you imagine how strange it would be if the umpire signaled to the crowd before C.C. Sabathia pitched that they had to "shush" while the big left hander delivered the ball?) Tennis should abolish the quiet rule and allow the customers to cheer their ears off. Their sounds will drown out Ms. Larcher De Brito's heartfelt squawks, and the world will be saved.