Maria Sharapova is the poster girl of women's tennis. The favourite for this fortnight's Wimbledon crown. An American in all but passport. With her long blonde hair and even longer legs she is the darling of sponsors and media alike. She is adored by the WTA and her legion of fans, but off the record her fellow professionals talk very differently of Sharapova. They paint a darker picture of the number one seed who turns on the charm only for the cameras. It's easy to say sour grapes, but there is a feeling on tour that Sharapova demands and gets preferential treatment.
Buried somewhere in the tennis rule book is an article on hindrance. It states that "If a player is hindered by an opponent then he or she wins the point, unless it's unintentional, in which case the point is replayed." Much of the implementation of this law is down to the umpire. Last years US Open Final saw Serena Williams fall foul of the hindrance law for her "Come on!" against Sam Stosur, and in the French Open Virginie Razzano was pinged twice after failing to reign in her grunting after an official warning from Umpire Eva Asderaki.
Tackling Serena had been a long time coming. Perhaps it was made easier after her explosion at the 2009 US Open where she threatened an line judge who was trying to make her name for herself by calling a foot-fault on a match point. One suspects silencing Sharapova would be more of a dilemma. Sponsors and organisers might not be too happy to see their number one draw card eliminated for what is in essence cheating.
Whilst I agree with Nick Bollettieri's assertion that when your putting all into hitting the ball as hard as you can you are going to make some noise as you exhale, but there is a world of difference from these breathy strains and the outright screaming of the world number one.
Nobody expects players to remain completely silent. There should, however, be limits. Sharapova often cranks up the decibels when cornered in blatant attempt to intimidate her opponent. It's unsporting and, according the rulebook, illegal.
Exhibit A for the prosecution would be the clash between the talented Czech player Barbora Zahlavova Strycova's and Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon a couple of years back. This third round match-up had everything for a thrilling encounter. Sharapova was finally coming back into form and Zahlavova-Strycova had just come through a three-setter in which she ousted the seeded Daniela Hantuchova.
Sharapova took it in two sets, edging the first 7-5 followed by a more comfortable 6-3 in the second. However, this does not tell the full story of the match. Sure at times it seemed like Hawkeye was deliberately favouring Sharapova, and you have to applaud her ability to read the lines and know when to challenge, but one niggling doubt over the legitimacy of that victory remains. On that afternoon number one court echoed to the constant screams of the then 16th seed. These were not the vocal strains of player trying to put every ounce of herself into every strike, but a seemingly deliberate attempt to destabilize her opponent.
More than once the Czech player was heard to mutter to the skies about the unnatural amount of noise coming over from the other side of the net. The umpire did nothing. Zahlavova-Strycova could have complained but then that would risk getting the crowd on her back and the umpire would probably have done nothing about it anyway. So the Czech player was in a lose/lose situation, unsettled in an unfair manner and unable to do anything about the cause of her complaint.
The defence may argue it's habit, that Sharapova has always screamed when hitting the ball hard. To stop her from doing so would interfere with the rhythm of her game. This may well be so, but why then did she also make the same noise when playing a soft drop shot? The simple answer to that would appear to be that if she stopped the scream when making a drop shot then her opponent would know and be ready for it. This then is a deliberate deception through noise, and surely that is 'hindrance'.
Sharapova is not the only guilty target. The Williams sisters as we know also turn up the volume when under pressure. Some might also point out Victoria Azarenka, but her elongated sound is a more natural and tracks perfectly with the flight of the ball. I find her to be an honest player. I'm yet to hear her elongate a scream when she's playing drop shot. If anything it's more beneficial to her opponents as they can audibly tell the speed she's imparted on the ball.
Of course mental strength is all part of the game, but it's about time the tennis came before the sponsors and the authorities stopped the screaming - which is many people's first reason for switching off Women's tennis. Whilst I fully expect Maria Sharapova to waltz off with the trophy this fortnight, I also expect she will not do so quietly.