Casual tennis fans around the world would have been forgiven for assuming that Alexander Zverev did not play last week. At the Paris Masters, the penultimate big tournament of the year, Zverev won four matches to reach the final but each time he entered the court many of the bustling official tennis social media accounts fell silent. Although he beat Stan Wawrinka in straight sets, Tennis TV provided only footage of his opponent’s successes. When he faced Rafael Nadal, his presence in the match was noted only when he won. No explanation was offered.
It isn’t difficult to suggest a reason for the silence. A few days before the tournament began, Zverev’s ex-girlfriend, Olga Sharypova, uploaded an Instagram post stating that she had been a victim of domestic violence by a former partner.
She later said that Zverev was culpable and in a long interview with Ben Rothenberg in Racquet Magazine published last Thursday, Sharypova offered a harrowing account of the violence she said escalated from Zverev hitting her head into the wall to pushing, choking and punching her in the face. After one such encounter in Geneva, she said that she injected herself with insulin in a suicide attempt. “I didn’t want to live any more,” she said.
Much of what Sharypova described are common themes of abuse. She stressed the impact of the controlling, coercive behaviour she said Zverev imposed on her and she chronicled a cycle of abuse, which her childhood friend Vasil and his stepmother both admitted to reinforcing by pushing her back towards Zverev because they initially did not believe her. Even her stated decision to speak out on her terms was notable: less than half of non-fatal domestic abuse is reported to the police. Many who do so struggle with the traumatising legal process that follows.
Zverev has denied Sharypova’s accusations. In a statement shortly after her Instagram post, he called her comments “simply not true” and “unfounded”. After numerous questions in Paris, it was not until his pre-tournament press conference at the ATP Finals that he expanded on it in a statement read from a phone on his lap: “We had our ups and downs, but the way our relationship was described in the public is not how it was. That’s not who I am, that’s not how I was raised by my parents. That’s not just simply who I am as a person. It makes me sad that the impact of such false accusations can have on the sport, on the outside world, on myself as well. I truly apologise that the focus has shifted away from the sport. We all love playing tennis, that’s what we’re here to do.”
It marked a shift in tone from his runner-up speech in Paris, where he took the curious decision to respond to serious, disturbing accusations with an insensitive message aimed at the haters: “I know that there’s gonna be a lot of people that right now are trying to wipe a smile off my face but under this mask I’m smiling brightly,” he said. “I feel incredible on court [...] everything is great in my life. The people who are trying can keep trying.”
The question asked of sporting organisations in these moments is whether they are more concerned with protecting their brand or ensuring the wellbeing of the people and families within the sport.
Tennis’s position so far is questionable. In May, the former world No 16 Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia was arrested on charges of domestic violence against his ex-wife Neka Dorokashvili, which he denies. Dorokashvili has been granted a restraining order against Basilashvili, but that did not stop him from being featured in a promotional interview by the ATP website in September. Zverev, a young star positioned as the heir to Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic for so long, is simply more prominent. When the Paris Masters social media attempted to carry on as usual by posting a picture of Zverev, fans swarmed the comments to shame them. The post was deleted and his presence on certain pages slowly disappeared from view.
Two weeks on, the ATP’s silence is deafening. Sharypova provided a specific and detailed account along with supporting text messages, photos and perspectives from two other people. Not only is she a former junior tennis player who grew up with many players on the tour, but she alleged that many of the events happened during tennis tournaments around the world. It was at the Laver Cup, which is now part of the ATP, that Sharypova says she attempted to take her own life before Zverev contacted an event official who sought medical attention for her. The ATP, which has no specific abuse policy, has a duty to initiate an independent investigation into Sharypova’s account and to be transparent about it. Its statement read: “The ATP fully condemns any form of violence or abuse. We expect all members of the Tour to do the same, and to refrain from any conduct that is violent, abusive, or puts others at risk. In circumstances where allegations of violence or abuse are made against any member of the Tour, legal authorities investigate and due process is applied, we then review the outcome and decide the appropriate course of action. Otherwise, we are unable to comment further on specific allegations.”
There are the typical conflicts of interest that may limit incentives for the truth: Zverev is represented by Team 8, the agency co-founded by Roger Federer, who has taken Zverev under his wing over the past few years. Team 8 owns the Laver Cup.
People are watching and last week they saw a sporting governing body operating in silence after one of its biggest stars was accused of domestic violence. Zverev’s presence is slowly returning to social media feeds now as attention shifts to the ATP Finals, which begin on Sunday, and we are another week removed from Sharypova’s comments. In the absence of action, it can only be assumed that those involved are hoping that as time wears on, memory of these accusations will fade. That cannot be the case.