Thursday, June 25, 2009

On Grunting

Every so often in the past few months, while buzzing past the Tennis Channel on my way to watching Big Ten network infomercials,* I will briefly convince myself that I am going to find a way to become a passionate fan of tennis. This lasts no longer than twelve minutes, and then it passes, usually when my girlfriend walks in and asks, "Why are you watching tennis?"

The reason, of course, is that tennis is one of those sports that is far more interesting as a literary metaphor than as an actual sport. This is why I consider John McPhee's book about Arthur Ashe to be a classic, even though I have never seen Arthur Ashe play tennis (and in fact, I turned away from a Tennis Channel replay of an Ashe-Connors match after nine minutes the other night); this is why I am actually quite excited to read the talented Jon Wertheim's new book about the Federer-Nadal match. I suppose this is partly a David Foster Wallace effect; his essays about tennis, heartbreakingly brilliant as they were, made me think that perhaps by not watching tennis, I am missing something important and crucial, something that I could not see anywhere else on this earth, at any other time. And while I'm sure this is not what he meant, this is what I saw last night, in my latest cruise through the tennis tier of Time-Warner Cable**--something I could not see anywhere else.

I saw Maria Sharapova, grunting and yelping like a Shit-Tzu attacking a postal carrier. It was so loud I actually began to feel embarrassed; it was so loud I worried perhaps my neighbor would think I was watching a snuff film. A few minutes of this was enough to convince me that grunting has evolved from instinct to gamesmanship; I doubt very much that Sharapova grunts like this when she is, say, opening a jar of kosher dills.

This has to be the strangest "controversy" in modern sports, and if the general public still cared about tennis in America, I have little doubt there would be 13,000 YouTube videos synching Sharapova's grunts with Ol' Dirty Bastard songs. Wertheim espouses an excellent theory here about grunting and its relation to the diva culture of the modern game; perhaps these women are merely grunting to "mark their territory," which only makes the whole thing weirder, and makes me wonder if tennis players are far more interesting than the game they play. Perhaps all the game is lacking is a reality TV program.

*I wondered, ever since my provider, Time Warner**, finally deemed the Big Ten Network worthy of carriage, what this channel would show over the summer. I had no idea how bizarre it would become. There is a whole genre of "campus programming" that seems targeted at people who are so proud of their alma mater that they will watch an hour-long debate among architectural engineering professors. For instance, here are some examples of "campus programming" airing on the Big Ten Network--and no, I am not making these up:
A.)Purdue Campus Programming: Purdue Profiles: Orville Redenbacher B.)Northwestern Campus Programming: Solar Car Competition
C.)Penn State Campus Programming: Music Theatre Spotlight (HD) (HD!)
D.)Wisconsin Campus Programming: Office Hours #3 Darwin's 200th Anniversary (HD) – Debut (Debut! Set your VCR-plus accordingly!)
E.)Ohio State Campus Progamming: Buckeye Football--It's All We Got!***

**Worst. Provider. Ever.

***OK, I may have made this one up.

(Photo: Rick Stevens/AP)

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