Lessons to be learned from ATP handling of Alexander Zverev abuse allegations

Ekn hindsight the silence that accompanied the first allegations of domestic abuse against Alexander Zverev turned out to be the most proactive action tennis took for nearly 10 maande. During the first week of the Paris Masters last November, to much criticism, the official tennis social media accounts barely covered Zverev’s run to the final there. As time passed, normalcy predictably resumed. Zverev, one of the most promising young tennis players, has continued to grow as a player and over the past month he has won an Olympic gold medal. All other issues were pushed to the side.

But that has been disrupted again as Olga Sharypova, his ex-girlfriend, has spoken further about abuse she says she experienced in a comprehensive interview in the US publication Slate. Last November, in a lengthy interview in Racquet magazine, Sharypova alleged Zverev would punch and choke her during their relationship, leading eventually to her attempting suicide by injecting herself with insulin in Geneva during the 2019 Laver Cup.

In die Slate interview on Wednesday – conducted with the same journalist, Ben Rothenberg, shortly after the first interview in 2020 – Sharypova claimed Zverev’s behaviour only escalated further, culminating in him attacking her during the China Open in October 2019. Sharypova’s friends provided screenshots of the messages she sent to them at the time, which included photos of the bruises she said were inflicted by him.

Zverev denies all Sharypova’s allegations and he has done so since last November. Shortly after the publication of the Slate article Zverev announced in a statement that he had successfully managed to attain a preliminary injunction, a temporary order granted before a trial. He says he has taken further unspecified legal action. During his pre-tournament press conference at the US Open Zverev claimed that the court had “confirmed” that Sharypova’s allegations were untrue.

When asked by the Guardian to clarify his statement considering neither party has been involved in any trial, he repeated himself: “I mean, what do you mean? We didn’t go to trial. If the court confirmed it, the court confirmed it. There’s nothing else that I can say.”

The reaction to Sharypova’s statements has continually revealed ignorance surrounding abuse allegations in general. Despite Sharypova saying she spoke publicly to help victims of abuse, much of the discussion has centred around her decision not to involve any authorities. Many victims who do speak out against former spouses are not necessarily interested in punishing them, while many who do involve the authorities have detrimental experiences as they are forced to continually re-live their trauma.

And then there are cases like that of Alexis Blackburn, the former partner of the Major League Baseball player Sam Dyson. The Athletic reported that when Blackburn contacted the police to report that she was the victim of domestic abuse, one officer told her that she “sounded like a vindictive girlfriend”. When Dyson was interviewed by the police, an officer closed it off by addressing him as an old friend: “OK, get back to your workout, bud!” The police found no probable cause for domestic violence. In the end MLB conducted its own investigation and in March suspended Dyson for the entire season for violating its domestic violence policy.

Sharypova also said she had received no contact at all from the Association of Tennis Professionals. It is not only necessary for sports governing bodies developing policies to investigate accusations but they have a duty to ensure all potential victims have as many resources, support and advice at hand. Sports inherently create an enormous power imbalance between athletes and some partners, particularly in tennis. Some partners are not only often financially dependent on the athlete but travel around the world and can be thousands of miles from friends and family when problems arise.

The sight of an alleged victim publicly revealing such detail about the abuse they say they received by a public figure is still uncommon. It is therefore imperative that there is an environment and culture that allows an alleged victim to feel comfortable reporting abuse, whether in private or publicly. Tennis has desperately failed in this distinction and it is difficult not to see the past 10 months as actively damaging to this plight. While Zverev has continued on his great on-court trajectory and even gained a Rolex endorsement, Sharypova said that she struggled to find a job because prospective employers would search her name and find these news stories.

Four days before the publication of the Slate article the ATP announced an independent review into developing safeguarding policies, which is a positive step forward. But Rothenberg noted that, although the ATP did not help his reporting, it did inquire a number of times about the publication date of the article. The announcement was also conspicuously absent from its social media platforms.

After the past 10 months people will take some convincing the ATP is committed to safeguarding those suffering and not more concerned with the bad optics incidents like this create. Its immediate instincts were to avoid the issue and then, through the glowing coverage that Zverev’s on-court successes have received over the past, they demonstrated how sporting structures appear to naturally move to protect their stars. That is precisely how governing bodies should not react.

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