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Why is the ATP silent on the Alexander Zverev domestic abuse allegations?

Alexander Zverev with Olga Sharypova
Alexander Zverev with Olga Sharypova
Musab Abid
EXPERT COLUMNIST
Modified 06 Nov 2020, 19:48 IST
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"She's a liar."

We've heard that rebuttal all too often in the social media age. More specifically, we've heard it being repeated over and over in response to the domestic abuse allegations by Olga Sharypova, the ex-girlfriend of World No. 7 Alexander Zverev.

The first instinct of many in the wake of Sharypova's claims was to question the victim rather than the accused. "Why did she wait so long before coming out with her story?" "Why isn't she pressing charges if the violence was so severe?" "What proof does she have other than pictures and Whatsapp screenshots?" "Why is she attacking him right after he's reached his first Slam final?"

Alexander Zverev, meanwhile, has only had to say the allegations are 'simply not true' via Instagram - and then repeat the same thing at his Paris press conference - for his defenders to take his word as gospel. "Why is she such a lying, manipulative, gold-digging bitch?"

Internet trolls are not meant to be taken seriously, nor are impassioned Twitter threads debating the moral fiber of a successful and popular celebrity. But here's the thing: Alexander Zverev and Olga Sharypova and all those social media warriors don't exist in a vacuum.

They are a part of society in general, and the sporting ecosystem - read ATP - in particular. And in that context, the silence of the powers that be is both a troubling precedent for future abuse victims and a telling commentary of just how much work remains to be done in the fight for equality.

The description of Alexander Zverev's alleged abuse is not for the faint-hearted

Alexander Zverev
Alexander Zverev

In case you haven't heard, Sharypova has doubled down on her stand and given a detailed (and harrowing) account of the alleged violence that Alexander Zverev committed last year.

In the interview with Ben Rothenberg, Sharypova explicitly mentions exactly how and when Zverev assaulted her during their relationship. The article ends with a rather disturbing description of a suicide attempt by Sharypova in a Geneva hotel, and the promise of more details in the coming days.

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Perhaps most pertinently though, the article tells us that at least two other people - Sharypova's friend Vasil Surduk and his mother (who has been referred to as "Mrs. V" for the sake of confidentiality) - corroborate her story. In addition, there might possibly be video footage of Sharypova's escape from their hotel room in New York, as well as testimony from the hotel staff in Geneva who helped the Russian survive her suicide attempt.

All of these new revelations, when taken together with the pictures and Whatsapp screenshots that Sharypova had shared earlier on her Instagram handle, clearly suggest this is not a baseless story that can be brushed under a 'simply not true' carpet. If Sharypova ever decided to press charges (which so far she says she doesn't intend to), she'd have a solid legal case.

So why are the ATP, the ITF, Alexander Zverev's agency Team8 (headed by Tony Godsick and none other than Roger Federer) so quiet about the issue?

The tennis authorities - proverbial 'lambs' in the Alexander Zverev controversy

To be fair, there has been one comment attributed to Team8 and Tony Godsick, as mentioned by Rothenberg in his article. But that was a rather vague bit of nothingness that merely reiterated what Alexander Zverev himself said last week. And it wasn't even voiced by Godsick himself; instead, it was a PR specialist called Bela Anda who made the comment.

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"As you know, Alexander put out a statement on Instagram last week and he stands by this statement," Anda said. "We are still working towards achieving the reasonable and respectful dialogue Alexander mentioned in his original statement."

What kind of 'respectful dialogue' do Alexander Zverev and his agency expect to have with a person who has accused him of trying to strangle her? The tone-deafness of the response is astounding even by the standards of tennis' genteel image.

Some have even questioned Roger Federer's silence on the issue, given that Team8 is partly his brainchild and also that he has practically had Alexander Zverev under his wing for years now. But anyone who has followed Federer's public life carefully would know that the Swiss is unlikely to speak out in this case.

Roger Federer (L) and Alexander Zverev
Roger Federer (L) and Alexander Zverev

Federer usually makes it a point to stay out of issues that don't directly affect him. And many might argue he is well within his rights to refrain from commenting on Zverev or the allegations, given the fact that he doesn't represent the German in his individual capacity.

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But you'd think the least that Alexander Zverev's agency could have done was put out a statement or clarification of some sort. Nobody is asking Team8 to immediately sever all ties with Zverev. But is it too much to ask that they at least acknowledge the issue, and assure everyone they are keenly following all the developments around it?

The silence of the ATP is even more problematic. That is admittedly not surprising though, given the rather poor track record of the organization in this regard.

A couple of decades ago, the ATP infamously abetted Andre Agassi in keeping his doping violation under wraps, under a flimsy pretext that the American himself later claimed was false. There are many other examples of the officials' lackadaisical attitude to player transgressions, including one from 2020 itself.

Just this May, Nikoloz Basilashvili was arrested on charges of physically assaulting his wife. However, there was no penalty, suspension or even a measly statement from the ATP acknowledging his involvement.

Like Alexander Zverev, Nikoloz Basilashvili has also been accused of domestic violence
Like Alexander Zverev, Nikoloz Basilashvili has also been accused of domestic violence

What does the ATP rulebook say with regard to such cases?

Is it incumbent upon the ATP to do or say anything about the personal controversies of players? Here's a relevant extract from the organization's rulebook:

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"It is an obligation for ATP players and Related Persons, to refrain from engaging in conduct contrary to the integrity of the game of tennis.

a) ....

b) A player, or related person, that has at any time behaved in a manner severely damaging to the reputation of the sport may be deemed by virtue of such behavior to have engaged in conduct contrary to the integrity of the Game of Tennis and be in violation of this Section.

c) ...

d) A player, or related person, charged with a violation of a criminal or civil law of any jurisdiction may be deemed by virtue of such charge to have engaged in conduct contrary to the integrity of the Game of Tennis and the ATP Senior Vice President - Rules & Competition may provisionally suspend such player, or related person, from further participation in ATP tournaments pending a final determination of the criminal or civil proceeding.

e) Violation of this section shall subject the player to a fine of up to $100,000 and/or suspension from play in ATP Tour or ATP Challenger Tour tournaments for a period of up to three (3) years."

Alexander Zverev hasn't been 'charged' with any violation yet nor is he likely to be, so clause 'd' doesn't apply to him. But what about clause 'b'? If the allegations by Sharypova are even partly true, shouldn't Zverev's behavior be considered 'severely damaging to the reputation of the sport'?

Clearly the ATP doesn't think so, if its stony silence is anything to go by. Heck, even the commentators during Alexander Zverev's matches at the Paris Masters this week have barely touched upon the domestic abuse allegations. It almost seems as though everyone is consciously trying to play down the controversy.

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But what else should we expect from an organization that didn't think Basilashvili being arrested for assaulting his wife was worth talking about?

Alexander Zverev is a much higher-profile figure than Basilashvili; he is the golden boy, the leader of the 'Next Gen', the one who is supposedly going to rule the sport once the Big 3 retire. And the alleged victim in this case is not even pressing charges. It shouldn't surprise us if the ATP considers this to be the player's own 'private business' that nobody else needs to get involved in.

So what if it makes Alexander Zverev look like a toxic, violent and dangerous abuser, right? That's just his private business.

Why do we always believe everyone except the accuser?

Olga Sharypova at one of Alexander Zverev
Olga Sharypova at one of Alexander Zverev's matches during the Hamburg Open 2019

Olga Sharypova hasn't proven her claims in a court of law, so strictly in legal terms Alexander Zverev can't be called a domestic abuser yet. But Sharypova has given a detailed account of the alleged abuse, including dates, pictures and texts. That puts the onus of coming up with a defense - or even a simple clarification or justification - squarely on Zverev's shoulders.

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What if Sharypova is making all of this up, you ask? If she actually has doctored those images and screenshots, as well as paid Vasil Surduk and his mother to back up her claims, then she should definitely be prosecuted in court. But it is up to Alexander Zverev and his legal team to prove that she is lying.

In the absence of any concrete response from them to each of her detailed claims, any objective person would be inclined to believe Sharypova.

But do we really believe her? Do we believe any alleged victim when they first come out with their story? A few isolated cases of fraudulent accusations have made us oblivious to the fact that a vast majority of such claims are grounded in truth.

Sharypova has already declared she wants nothing - no money, support or even an apology - from Alexander Zverev. All she wants is for the world to know the truth, for the sake of her peace of mind as well as for the safety of any future associates of the German. Why then are we so eager to cast doubt on her motives?

I've lost count of the number of people I've seen who assume Sharypova is saying all of this for money, or attention, or both. Do we really think the thousands of Internet comments calling her a 'slut', a 'gold-digger' and a 'bitch' are the kind of attention she would enjoy?

Yes, we do need to hold off on making any judgments about Alexander Zverev until the full story emerges. But the longer he takes cover under a three-word rebuttal - 'simply not true' - the shakier his side starts looking.

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In essence, Alexander Zverev has so far merely asked us to not believe Sharypova, but without any mention of why we shouldn't.

And no, the fact that they separated a 'long time ago' (as pointedly mentioned in Alexander Zverev's statement) should do nothing to make anyone disregard Sharypova's claims. It is mind-boggling how Zverev and so many others are using that as an excuse; how exactly does the time period have any relevance whatsoever?

For all we know Sharypova took a year to come out with her story because she was afraid of exactly the kind of response she is getting right now. Or maybe she just got emboldened by Brenda Patea's pregnancy announcement last week, and realized that if one woman can send a message to Zverev through the press, then so can she.

We don't have to take all of Sharypova's claims at face value. But we don't have to paint her as an attention-seeking fraud either. And the sad reality is that Alexander Zverev, Team8 and ATP are all indirectly doing that with their unexplained silence.

If Sharypova is indeed making false claims, Zverev's team will sue her for defamation and restore his image soon enough. But consider for a moment that the claims aren't false, and the German gets away scot-free because of the lack of action taken by the authorities. Who's to say he won't commit the same atrocities against his future partners?

If there is no consequence for an abuser's actions - not even something as rudimentary as a statement of concern from your governing body - there is little reason for them to stop with their abusive ways.

Would it kill the ATP or Team8 or any of Alexander Zverev's sponsors to put out a statement saying they will do everything in their power to get to the bottom of the issue? Actually it might, when you consider how easy the alternative is: just call her a liar.

Published 06 Nov 2020, 16:37 IST
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