by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

New YORK — Next time I go to a tennis tournament, I’m bringing a 6-month-old baby, a barking dog, and my rather large friend, Mendel, who tends to eat a lot of Mexican food, then burp. And when some umpire asks us to leave because the poor tennis player can’t concentrate on his serve, I’m going to stand up, turn to my group, and lead it in a resounding chorus of: “WAAAH! Grrrrr. Urrp!”

Which brings us to today’s subject: Monica Seles.

And grunting.

I have been following this story since Wimbledon, when Seles’ habit of groaning as she hits the ball was big news in England. I figure this is OK for Brits, because what else do they have to do over there besides pick on Princess Di and stomp on a few soccer fans?

But when we start complaining about grunting in America, I have to say: Unnnnnnnhh! Whoa, baby.

Seles — who plays Mary Joe Fernandez in the U.S. Open semifinals today
— has the right to grunt. She has the right to moan. She has the right to wheeze, whine, chortle, holler and sing “Hallelujah!” if she wants. It is the American way. Especially in sports. This is the land of the Touchdown Dance. The NBA High Five. The Hockey Fight.

Suddenly grunting is a criminal offense?

“It’s distracting,” Martina Navratilova complained at Wimbledon.

Come on. I knew a football lineman once who purposely ate garlic and onions before a game, then breathed as hard as he could in his opponent’s face. That’s distracting. Or the basketball player who used to whisper to his enemies, “Saw your wife last night. She get home all right?” That’s distracting.

Grunting is not distracting. Grunting is a natural sound made whenever extreme effort is exerted, or your in-laws come to visit. Her grunts come naturally

So I must take Monica’s side in this one. Especially when you consider that she is only 18, and, were she your typical teenager, she’d be grunting all day, anyhow.

MOTHER: Monnn-i-ca!

MONICA: Hunnh?

MOTHER: Come down for dinner, honey!

MONICA: Hunnnh?

MOTHER: Did you hear me, Monica?

MONICA: Unnh hunn.



Also, as I’ve said before, listening to Seles grunt has got to be better than listening to her speak. Last year, during interviews at the Open, she wore out a stenographer, who said he never had to transcribe anyone who spoke so fast and made so little sense.

“Over 300 words a minute,” he sighed.

The other day, Seles offered this explanation:

“I don’t want to go out on the court and think ‘Monica, don’t grunt now.’ This is the most important thing. You mustn’t think that. I do my best with grunting or without. And I don’t want to make an issue out of it. Because you shouldn’t be.”

Yeah. Good poin– Huh?

Personally, I prefer a nice, hearty “UNNH!” Unlike many things Seles does, grunting is not a publicity stunt. She has been making the sound since she was 12. Some medical types believe it actually improves her shots, gives them more “oomph.” Think about it. You get a jet leaving the runway, you want a little noise, don’t you?

But all this controversy has led to a silenced Seles, and it has cost her. At Wimbledon, she got flustered, swallowed her grunt, and eventually lost in the finals to Steffi Graf — without making a peep.

She hasn’t won a tournament since. Here at the Open, Seles has been watching her noise level — and has developed a bad cold, so that she can barely talk, let alone grunt. Maybe it’s psychosomatic.

Is this any way to treat the best woman tennis player in the world? Why are tennis players babied?

No, but that’s this sport. On Wednesday, in his match against Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, No. 1 in the world, stopped play when he heard an infant. He asked the umpire to “get that baby out of here.”

I thought he was talking about Agassi.

But no, he was talking about the innocent child, and the umpire obliged, and the baby was removed. Now, remember, the U.S. Open is in the shadow of LaGuardia airport. Planes fly so low here you can see the bags under the seats. The noise is deafening.

Not to mention the ruckus when Agassi got mad at the umpire and screamed
“BLEEP YOU!” into a towel three times while staring at him.

But I guess that kind of baby is tolerated, whereas the kind in diapers is not. I want to know why. I want to know why a college freshman can be asked to stand at the foul line, with the national championship on his shoulders, and sink a free throw with 60,000 people waving towels and hollering unmentionable things about his mother — yet a tennis player breaks out in a rash if someone sneezes during his rally?

Is it sports, or the Intensive Care ward?

Maybe, instead of silencing Seles, tennis should encourage players to make their favorite sounds. We might get some neat results. Then again, we might just get 100 people moaning, “Where’s the limo?”

If you ask me, all this is proof that tennis needs more bran in its diet. Seles is good for the game. She hits hard, plays with spirit. Let her grunt. If her opponents don’t like it, just remember, they could be facing that lineman who ate the garlic and onions.

Then they’d never come to the net.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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