Wednesday January 25th, 2012

Maria Sharapova on grunting: "No one important enough has told me to change or do something different." (Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Another tournament, another grunting discussion. But when the players start calling each other out, it's impossible to ignore.

The issue has surfaced again at the Australian Open as fans have mimicked the noisy Victoria Azarenka (who is also the subject of Australia's Channel 7 “Whoo-Meter”), Agnieszka Radwanska deemed Maria Sharapova's shrieks "pretty annoying" and the WTA Tour reiterated that it is exploring ways to "reduce excessive grunting."

Radwanska supported the idea of a potential rule change to curb grunting, a stance similar to that of Caroline Wozniacki, who expressed her views in October.

"I'm kind of used to it, especially with Vika," Radwanska said, perhaps giving a bit of a pass to Azarenka because of their long-standing friendship. The Pole wasn't quite as forgiving when it came to Sharapova, however.

"About Maria, I mean, what can I say? For sure that is pretty annoying and it's just too loud," Radwanska said Tuesday after losing to Azarenka in the quarterfinals. "Of course everybody can make some noise. This is tennis. It's really hard work. But I think it's just too loud. ... So if they want to do something, why not?"

Sharapova responded to Radwanska after defeating Ekaterina Makarova 6-2, 6-3 in the quarterfinals Wednesday.

"Isn't she back in Poland already?" Sharapova quipped, wondering aloud when Radwanska would have had time to make such comments. When told that Radwanska had spoken after her quarterfinal match, Sharapova kept the snark coming.

"She lost the match?" Sharapova said.

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That wasn't a question so much as statement, the equivalent of a smug, pointing-to-the-scoreboard gesture in the midst of some mild trash-talking. These criticisms aren't new to Sharapova. She's heard them her entire career, and until something meaningful changes, the three-time Grand Slam champion is happy to keep defending herself.

"You've watched me grow up, you've watched me play tennis," she said. "I've been the same over the course of my career. No one important enough has told me to change or do something different."

Sharapova's comments echo those of Azarenka, whose prolonged whooping grunt has been the subject of much ridicule throughout the tournament.

"I don't think that me and Maria are the only players who actually grunt," said Azarenka, also no stranger to defending herself against critics. "It's the way I am, the way I play, the way I used to play when I was a kid.

"As a child, I was really weak, so I had to give that little extra power there. It kind of stuck with me, so that's it."

The WTA issued a statement Tuesday acknowledging its interest in addressing the issue.

"We are currently in the process of exploring how to reduce excessive grunting, especially for younger players just starting out, without adversely affecting players who have developed their game under the current training, rules and procedures,'' the statement said. "We do believe that we need to address the concerns expressed by some fans and take a careful look at our rules and education policies.''

"In the process." "Exploring." "Need to address." "Careful look." Translation? "We know we have a problem but we can't fix it, we don't know how to fix it, so don't expect us to do so anytime soon."

That seems to be what the players are hearing behind closed doors. Asked whether a rule change would affect her, Sharapova deflected. "Right now, there is no rule change," she said. "I don't hear that there will be one, so it doesn't really matter what my answer would be, would it?"

Nope, it wouldn't matter what her answer would be because as of now it's a completely hypothetical question. The WTA isn't going to implement a rule that affects its most marketable stars like Sharapova, Azarenka and Serena Williams (who grunts selectively), so it's left to try to change the culture among up-and-comers. That process is under way, according to the USA Today:

Just a few weeks ago, WTA staffers visited the famed Bollettieri/IMG Academy in Florida, where many conspicuous grunters — from Monica Seles to Maria Sharapova— honed their tennis skills, according to [WTA spokesman Andrew] Walker. The academy recently issued a memo on breathing vs. grunting that notes, "The goal is not to beat your opponent with an unfair or unethical tactic."

Might I also suggest screening videos of Azarenka trying to play at the Australian Open while fans mock her grunt during the point? That might do something to quell the noise.

But in the end it feels like a futile endeavor, one that is more focused on optics than actual effect. Tour the grounds here during the juniors' tournament with your eyes closed and you'd think you walked into the vampire-birthing scene from Twilight (spoiler alert?). Court after court is specked with pint-size players wailing and screaming through points, bouncing rackets and emulating (for better or worse) the stars. It seems to work for their idols, so why wouldn't it work for them?

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