Making Her Go Quietly

The Bible tells us Samson was mighty and killed lions and slew Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. Then they found the source of his power: his hair. They removed it and made him a loser.

The British tabloids tell us Monica Seles was mighty. She won two legs of the grand slam and was invincible. Until they discovered the source of her power: her grunt. They removed it and made her a loser.

Monica Seles doesn't only play a tennis game, she orchestrates it. She sounds a little like Lily Pons in the mad scene from Lucia Di Lammermoor when she hits the ball. A sound like a cross between a scream and a belch. A note Mendelssohn never wrote and Beverly Sills couldn't hit.

Seles' march through women's tennis--she won three of the four grand slam events last year (and skipped Wimbledon)--was accompanied by this howl that sounded a little like a guy falling from the 31st floor.

It was really a part of her repertoire--a loud, explosive exhalation of air as she struck the ball as hard as she could hit it.

It was unnerving, to say the least, but it seemed harmless. Until the middle of Wimbledon when Seles was playing France's Nathalie Tauziat and was, typically, trouncing her in straight sets.

Tauziat interrupted her humiliation in mid-defeat, approached the chair, and inquired politely whether it would be possible to order Seles to muffle her piercing grunts. Tauziat said the outcries were so loud, she couldn't hear the balls hit.

The chair was impressed enough to caution Seles to turn the sound down a decibel or two.

The British media knew a good angle when they were handed one. "Shut Up, Monica!" headlines screamed. They hinted darkly that Seles' shrieks were unfair advantages, calculated outbursts like John McEnroe's tantrums designed to throw an opponent out of her rhythm.

Seles wasn't shut up, but she was shaken up. In her next match, against Martina Navratilova, Seles did not exactly become Whispering Smith, but neither did she sound like someone getting mugged in Central Park.

Navratilova, like the British press, knew a ploy when she found one and she, too, protested.

The muted Seles put Navratilova away, but with some difficulty. The British tabloids were not muted. They harumphed at the top of their voices in a crescendo of indignation that was overwhelming enough for Seles to play her final match with Steffi Graf as if she had an overnight case of laryngitis.

Without her grunt, she was Samson without hair. "Flat and listless," reported Sports Illustrated. Also silent.

When Graf won rather overpoweringly in straight sets, the Brits from Fleet Street did some screaming of their own. "See?!" they crowed, in effect.

Letting out a scream as you hit a ball--or an opponent--is perfectly permissible in any other sport. Jose Canseco can scream like a cat with its tail caught in the door as he hits a home run if he wants. A quarterback can let out a high-pitched wail as he sees Howie Long bearing down. Mike Tyson could grunt to his heart's content as he sunk a right into somebody's mid-section. Magic Johnson can bay at the moon as he throws a no-look pass.

There is a school of martial arts that holds that an audible exhalation of air at the moment of impact releases stores of pent-up energy. It's called "Kee-yi."

Seles has heard of it, but denies she uses it. Seles' squeal is more that of a young girl taking her first roller-coaster ride. Or that girl in the TV commercial who hears her mother spilling her secrets to a boy in her high school.

High-decibel grunting was not exactly unknown in tennis even before Seles. Jimmy Connors used to sound like a guy who took a medicine ball in the stomach whenever he hit one of his two-handed backhands. Seles simply put it in an upper register.

It isn't as if Seles began to win only after she learned to grunt. The facts are, she grunted as loud in her formative years when she was losing love-love or 2-2.

"I don't know why it became an issue at Wimbledon," she says.

I do. You see, sports is nothing if not superstitious. Sports people, as a class, believe--sometimes despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary--that, if someone is successful, they must know something--have some secret--the rest of the field doesn't know.

It's the reason for the manic copycatting that takes place. If a batter comes up to home plate wearing his cap--or his uniform--on backward, and goes four for four, the entire lineup will show up the next day with clothes on backward. If Michael Jordan wears a head band, within a week everyone else will be wearing one. If a guy shows up with a white putter--and wins the U.S. Open--the paint company will be sold out of white in weeks.

The other thing you do besides imitate is get the edge removed. If you suspect your opponent is on steroids, you get him tested. Or banned. If you suspect the grunt is your problem, approach the chair.

Is Seles' scream-grunt an illegal advantage? Is it even a psych-out?

A lion roars when it attacks, but is it intimidation--or simply the beast's way of summoning up its own confidence?

"I think it's ridiculous," Seles says. "Here I come to Wimbledon and do something I've been doing for years, winning and losing, and all of a sudden they're coming around with devices to measure the loudness of the grunts and speculate on my motives.

"It's just a game, after all, and it's how I play it.

"Why pick on me when so many others do it and have been doing it? I just put so much energy into hitting the ball and hit the ball so hard that the effort is audible."

The sights and sounds of a Seles tennis match--which sounds at center court as if a mouse got loose in a sorority house--would be sorely missed.

The new Seles will be in a tournament at the Manhattan Beach Country Club the week of Aug. 10. She won't be wearing a gag or a muzzle, but her grunting is expected to be ladylike. The guess here is, her opponents will find out it's her forehand, not her larynx, that is beating them love-love.

Anyway, not letting Seles grunt is like not letting Gene Kelly dance or Bette Davis smoke or Michael Jordan put his tongue out.

Besides, if grunting could make you a better athlete, a pig would win the Kentucky Derby.

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