It wasn’t exactly a crushing performance like her conquests of the past that have seen her win back-to-back Australian Opens in 2012 and 2013, but Victoria Azarenka now finds herself in the quarterfinals of this year’s U.S. Open after a 5-7, 6-1, 6-4 win over Karolina Muchkova on Tuesday afternoon (Australian time).
Azarenka’s surge into the last eight is significant for many reasons.
Is the former world number one on the Women’s Tennis Association tour taking advantage of a depleted women’s field that started with six of the top ten-ranked female players, including the current top-ranked women’s player Ash Barty, not contesting this major? Absolutely.
Does it show a return to form after a host of personal struggles highlighted by a child custody battle over the last few years? We’ll see – she still has to beat Belgian Elise Mertens next up, which would be the first of three more matches that she would have to win to lift the trophy. And she still has none other than Serena Williams as an obstacle on her half of the draw should she defeat Mertens.
But the revival of Azarenka’s top-form game also marks her as the return of a dying breed: the grunters.
Which would hopefully allow many of us, myself included, can identify with.
When the WTA wrongly put a phasing-out soft ban on grunting in matches on tour from 2012, with the current grunting players at the time exempt from the ban, as a fan and casual player, it left me aghast. It’s downright discrimination, let me tell you.
I played competitive tennis in my schoolboy years, at a time where some young people now would sarcastically claim that my textbooks were written on stone tablets, and I myself was a grunter back then, when Jimmy Connors was one of my adolescent sporting heroes, complete with his deep guttural outbursts from within.
So as I kept playing, I saw it is as old as the game itself as I knew it.
In later years, we had the likes of – to name a few of the females – Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova, both Williams sisters, Aryna Sabelenka… and Azarenka.
Many of those players have been criticized for the volume in which they grunt; for the female players, they’ve earned the group nickname of “the deci-belles”. But then there’s volume and pitch -- my wife refers to Azarenka by the nickname “Dough Girl” for that very combination. (Think of the Pillsbury mascot making the noise after having his tummy poked.)
And for those claiming that these observations are sexist, misogynistic, or even voyeuristic, consider this: in addition to my boyhood idol Connors, and his contemporaries John McEnroe and Andre Agassi, the likes of David Ferrer, Gustavo Kuerten, Novak Djokovic, and even Rafa Nadal do it, too… often without criticism.
Even Azarenka herself defends her grunting, whether grunting is her divine right or otherwise, in a unique manner of analogy to a reporter, going back to the 2012 Doha Open in Qatar.
But as the likes of the older grunters fade away due to the effects of retirement, age, injuries, and general attrition, the current run of Azarenka – amid all that she has been through to get back to this point of contending for a major championship – should be a sight and sound to behold.
Getting back to my more recent days of playing social tennis: if anyone playing against me complains about my grunting, all I need to do is remind them that tennis is a game which is 90 percent half-mental – in other words, very naturally psychological in its own right. One must be very tunnelled and focused about their ability to compete.
In fact, if an opponent complains about my grunting, I’m already rubbing my hands, knowing full well that I’m in their proverbial kitchen, and grabbing the ingredients to cook Eggs Benedict.
And I’m sure I am not alone, among us social tennis players, from the mugs all the way up to the advanced groups.
Grunting in tennis is natural as white on rice – especially for us non-professionals – and as much as detractors attempt to abolish it from the sport, it will always be there, if not by the pure physics and physicality to hitting a ball hard all by itself, and what it takes.
Even in some circles, for those who like to have a punt, it is fascinating to observe one academic study of research which concluded that some players’ grunts were lower pitched in victories and higher pitched in defeats. Talk about indicators that your local bookie can take advantage of.
So here’s hoping that Victoria Azarenka wins each of her final three matches to lift her first U.S. Open trophy. You’d love to do more than just hear about it – you’d love to listen to it.