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Monday, June 22, 2009

Girl aloud? De Brito keeps quiet... for now

Photo Titled Michelle Larcher De Brito
Michelle Larcher De Brito

There is nothing the press room likes better than a good gimmick. Forehands and backhands are all very well but they will only take you so far. If you want a decent headline, get a gimmick.

So the moment Michelle Larcher De Brito and her infamous grunt marched through the gates of the All England Club, the good men and women of Fleet Street perked up. A grunter? A loud grunter? Time to dust off the gruntometer and get to work.

And so for all 58 minutes of De Brito’s 6-2, 7-5 first round win over Klara Zakopalova, the members of the fourth estate sat in rapt attention.

It was back in 1992 that this famous gadget was first used. Then it was a Heath Robinson affair, cobbled together by a technical geek at one of the national newspapers and used to measure the decibel level of Monica Seles as she grunted her way through the draw and on to the final. But once she got there, someone had a word in her ear, she quietened down and Steffi Graf thumped her 6-2, 6-1. Seles without a grunt was about as much use as Graf without a racket.

De Brito has previous in the grunting department. At the French Open just a handful of weeks ago, she was so spectacularly loud as she faced Aravane Rezai that the Frenchwoman complained to the umpire about the noise. To be fair to Rezai, the grunt was so long that it started as De Brito struck the ball and was still going when the ball bounced on the other side of the net. As for the volume, she shrieks could be heard from two courts away.

But Wimbledon is not Paris and as the 16-year-old from Portugal stepped onto Court 17 to play Zakopalova, she appeared to be a changed woman. The silence was golden.

This came as a huge disappointment to the massed ranks of reporters. They had all been put on “grunt watch” but grunts came there none. One chap had even brought his own gruntometer (apparently you can buy them in all reputable electronics stores now) but he barely needed it. Seldom have so many glum hacks been gathered in one place at one time.

De Brito, of course, could not keep a lid on it forever. After a couple of games she could be heard as racket string struck ball but instead of the full throated howl of Paris, now she sounded more like a steam train’s whistle – short, sharp and to the point. And certainly not enough to register on the gruntometer.

De Brito, though, is not promising that she will not give the inky-fingered hacks a story later on in the week. An unrepentant grunter at heart – “I’d rather get fined than lose a match because I had to stop grunting,” she said – she will do whatever she thinks is right to go further in the competition.

“If my body feels like it needs to grunt more, it grunts. If not, it stays quiet,” she explained. “I played really well. I start off good, and I didn't think it was necessary to really go any louder than I was today. I was playing good. The grunt goes through my intensity, and today I played good and I stayed solid throughout. So I don't think it was necessary to go much louder.

“I'm finally starting to do well. I'm finally in the top 100 and I don't want to change anything because things are starting to fall into place a little bit now. Everything that's happened about the grunting, I don't want it to affect my mind or my tennis, because finally I'm doing well and finally I'm starting to get really great results.

“I don't want this to affect my tennis, and I don't want, you know, anything to get into my head, because I'm starting to get confidence. I don't want that to get ruined because of something [that’s] a bit ridiculous.”

Next on the horizon for De Brito is Francesca Schiavone, one of the tour’s fiercer competitiors. If anyone could bring the grunt out of De Brito, it is Schiavone. The gruntometer could live to fight another day.

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