Grunting, Belleville style

Pity Connors isn't around these days to give his opinion about family, but you can be pretty sure he'd give the idea a particularly loud grunt of approval. After all, the man who once explained that on court "I am an animal" was tutored by his mother, Gloria, and grandmother, Bertha.


Jimmy Connors... took grunting to a different level.-Pic. TONY DUFFY/GETTY IMAGES

SHE may come from Siberia and live in Florida, but you think it's down in Belleville, Illinois that young Russian star Maria Sharapova is truly admired and appreciated.

You can almost see the grizzled old-timers burying their moustaches in their beer at the local bar, and saying, "Now that's a tennis player". Of course, it's not so much that they like the look of her, but that they love the sound of her.

For when Sharapova grunts, tennis comes to a standstill, and we're not kidding because in the past a player on an adjacent court had to ask the umpire to send a message to Sharapova to tone it down. Understandably, because it's a multi-syllable shriek that more or less sounds like a hysterical woman who's just found her lipstick is missing.

Of course, in Belleville they have a fine appreciation for such grunting because that's where Jimmy Connors is from, whose every shot was accompanied by a sound that resembled a man being hit in the solar plexus. Which, of course, was what Connors would be happy to literally do to any opponent.

Connors explained himself tersely many years ago as having a "large grunt sack". No one argued the point further. After all, those were different days when John McEnroe once asked a nosy questioner to step outside. On another occasion, a journalist antagonised by the questions being asked by another journalist to McEnroe started a fist-fight in the interview room. Still, as sounds go this Wimbledon, Sharapova was a damn sight more fun than listening to Greg Rusedski go through the entire Canadian Cussing Encyclopaedia during his match against Andy Roddick. An idiot from the stands yelled "out" during a close call, whereupon Rusedski started behaving like one.

At least, he was swearing in English which made it easier to fine him, which was not the case with Garrulous Goran some years ago, whose colourful usage of Croat was detected only when viewers telephoned the All England Club to complain. Tim Henman, whose favourite four-letter word is "nice", is truly the real Englishman on show.

Nevertheless, matters went totally out of hand in the commentary box where McEnroe, who to put it mildly was never good friends with restraint, made it clear that he was unhappy with Rusedski's behaviour. You cannot be serious, mate. Perhaps he and Rusedski both need sessions with the Buddhist monk close to the courts who was helping Paradorn Srichapan keep "calm".

On the other hand, maybe Rusedski, who leading 5-2 in the third set against Roddick and then folded abruptly like a building made of cheap cement, should take heed of what James Blake said. The young American, who admits his head hangs as soon as his game starts to unravel (something previous Indian cricket teams have a Ph.d in), said, "A 15-year-old should be able to figure out. You're going to play better if you're holding your head high and you're focussed on each point and not worrying about the last point."

When told that Boris Becker had mentioned one major facet of Pete Sampras' greatness was his inscrutability, the inability of an opponent to tell from Sampras' face or body language whether he was feeling anxious or not, Blake concurred. He said Sampras had told him that, "Being a good tennis player, you got to have a short memory — as short a memory as possible — whether it comes to just forgetting about the point before, forgetting about the game before, forgetting about the whole practice before, anything like that.''

Still, although tennis players can be a bit precious about noise and moving crowds, they do have one line of defence. As Roddick explained, the sound of the ball coming off the racket tells its own story — flat shot, top-spin, mishit, each shot has its own defining sound. Of course, that's good in theory, but when Philippoussis serves, the thunderclap arrives only after the ball has passed you.

Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to note that Philippoussis has locked up his motorbikes and declined party invitations and remembered he is a tennis player, and his match against Andre Agassi had a certain irony, for it was a collision of two former lost souls who have proved it's never too late to find your way.

Funny thing was with Agassi's exit there was, improbably, not a single Grand Slam champion among the quarter-finalists (Philippoussis, Popp, Grosjean, Roddick, Federer, Henman, Schalken, Bjorkman), a far cry from 1992 when the quarters comprised McEnroe, Forget, Agassi, Becker, Sampras, Stich, Ivanisevic, Edberg, five Grand Slam winners with Agassi going to win that year.

As confounding this year was that some of the last eight were actually practitioners of the serve and volley. At one point, against Younes el Aynaoui, even Agassi, rather than being jerked back by an invisible lasso, actually leaped forward and followed his serve to the net, whereupon he was asked later if he had suddenly lost his mind. Replied the grinning American, who was probably as startled by his tactic, "Yeah, I don't know what got into me there. I probably won't do that again until about 2010." He was lying. Next match against Philippoussis he did it more than once.

The missing Aussie, Lleyton Hewitt, has meanwhile been receiving advice on television, radio and in print from all manner of experts on what to do about his sagging career. The general consensus seems to be: get rid of your family, i.e. what's a 22-year-old man doing touring with daddy and mummy?

Sampras' parents never turned up at a Grand Slam tournament till his last Wimbledon win, and sat inconspicuously in the stands (in fact, they found out he had won his first Grand Slam title, the 1990 U.S. Open, when a salesman at a shopping centre they were in mentioned to them in passing that a young American called Sampras had won the final.)

Becker's parents usually turned up only during finals time, and the only time I ever saw Agassi's father was during a chance meeting with him after the Leander-Agassi match at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

The women, of course, are understandably more prone to travel with, and be coached, by their parents, but for every successful tennis parent (Jimmy Evert, Karolj Seles, Richard Williams, Melanie Monitor) you have the nightmare of Damir Dokic and Jim Pierce and Peter Graf.

But this obsession with Hewitt's parents is a trifle unfair (no one complained when he was winning), and every player has earned the right to choose his own comfort zone. When he's ready, he'll leave them at home. A bit like Agassi who once travelled with an entourage the Queen would blush at (manager, agent, friend, brother, coach, trainer, actress girlfriend), but now settles for strength trainer Gil Reyes, coach Darren Cahill and wife Steffi. And anyway, to prove Hewitt's point, Scud's gone back to his father, Nick, and in his case that's being interpreted as a master-stroke.

Pity Connors isn't around these days to give his opinion about family, but you can be pretty sure he'd give the idea a particularly loud grunt of approval. After all, the man who once explained that on court "I am an animal" was tutored by his mother, Gloria, and grandmother, Bertha.