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Djokovic's sympathetic support of Zverev, and the silence of Federer & Nadal, highlight tennis' insensitivity towards abuse

Alexander Zverev seems to have all of his colleagues
Alexander Zverev seems to have all of his colleagues' support in the domestic violence case
Mihir Gawade
ANALYST
Modified 29 Nov 2020
Feature

It's been a month since Alexander Zverev was accused by his ex-girlfriend Olga Sharypova of being physically and emotionally abusive during their time together. And yet the ATP still hasn't called for an investigation, and there has been no voicing of concern by any male player. In fact, Novak Djokovic has expressed sympathy towards the accuser, while Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have been totally silent.

Sharypova's detailed account of the trauma she was subjected to during her relationship with Zverev stunned the tennis world. Fans who had always thought of the German as a witty and harmless bundle of joy were shell-shocked to hear the possibility that the "future of men's tennis" could have such a dark side.

Over the past month, the once charismatic Alexander Zverev has lost thousands of fans, especially those active on social media websites. But what he hasn't lost is the good faith of the ATP, his sponsors and his colleagues on the tour.

So maybe he hasn't lost much after all.

The ATP tour's indifference to the Alexander Zverev situation gets more alarming with each passing day

It looks as if the entire men's tour have collectively decided to have their colleague's back. They have either actively expressed support for Zverev, or passively joined ranks with him by not commenting on the issue at all.

Just a week ago, after their round robin match at the 2020 ATP Finals, World No. 1 Novak Djokovic posted a message for Alexander Zverev on his social media handles. Djokovic expressed unequivocal support for Zverev, sending him best wishes for "what awaits him on and off the court".

Djokovic also asked Zverev to 'stay strong', making it sound as though the German was a victim rather than an accused.

In normal circumstances, this might have come off as a gracious message from a tennis legend to the sport's future champion. Moreover, as seen from the Adria Tour, Djokovic and Zverev are very close to each other off the court.

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Some might have even assumed the best wishes to be directed towards Zverev's fatherhood, given that his ex-girlfriend Brenda Patea is pregnant with his child.

But what paints the post in an entirely different hue is Djokovic's message asking Zverev to 'stay strong'. That is particularly so when read with the press conference just hours prior, where Djokovic said he hopes Zverev 'overcomes the situation so that he can focus on his career and life once again'.

It sounds as though the 17-time Grand Slam champion has made up his mind to support his friend come what may.

Admittedly, Novak Djokovic did give a detailed response to the question about the need for a specific policy in the rule book. And his view resonates with that of his peers Andy Murray and Daniil Medvedev; all three of them want the ATP to introduce a domestic violence policy in the code of conduct for its players.

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But the call for an ATP policy on domestic abuse by the three gentlemen, while absolutely necessary, is just the bare minimum. It's a no-brainer that every professional body needs to have a code of conduct for issues around personal ethics and civil responsibilities of its members. It reflects really poorly on tennis that its top body doesn't have an explicit policy on domestic violence or harassment even in 2020.

It is particularly disturbing that even after the allegations on Nikoloz Basilashvili, and a month after the accusations on Zverev, there has been no intimation by the ATP that any kind of policy is in the drafts.

The lack of clarity or even acknowledgement by the ATP provides every player on tour a ready-made and safe response when asked about their thoughts on the whole situation. They can simply say they are against violence - which any remotely decent person should be - and defer the matter to the officials. And in the absence of any sanctions from the ATP, the players can also freely declare that the reports have had no effect on their personal relationship with the accused.

Amid such wash-your-hands-off-the matter behavior from his colleagues, Alexander Zverev seems to be getting rather smug about the whole situation. The German boasted of "having a big smile" under his mask at the Paris Masters presentation ceremony, and at London he expressed confidence that all the ATP stars have his back.

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To add to the borderline psychopathic way that Alexander Zverev has been dealing with the situation, his social media handlers have been religiously deleting negative comments from his Instagram posts. One moment you see a fan comment demanding an answer from the World No. 7 on Sharypova's accusations, and the next moment the comment is gone.

All of this suggests that Zverev and his PR team are happy to ignore the allegations altogether, and to let time do its thing in making people forget. And when they have the support of the World No. 1 in that endeavor, they will probably get exactly what they want.

But Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev's PR team are not the only problematic aspects in this situation. The the silence of the other two biggies has been almost as troubling.

You know who I'm talking about.

Why are Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal silent on the issue?

Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Alexander Zverev during last year
Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Alexander Zverev during last year's Laver Cup

To their credit, Novak Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev and Andy Murray at least spoke up on the issue. They even made statements in favor of a domestic abuse policy, which might possibly lead to something fruitful in the future.

But Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal - the two biggest stars and ambassadors of the sport - have maintained total silence, refusing to utter a word.

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Yes, it is true that they weren't asked about it in any interview or press conference. In fact, Roger Federer is busy with his long recovery from injury, and hasn't interacted much with the media lately. But given the enormous influence that he and Rafael Nadal wield, many expected some comment from them on their own volition.

The organizers of the Laver Cup have also been completely silent on the incident that Sharypova claims to have taken place during last year's event. After a fight with Zverev in Geneva, Sharypova allegedly tried to inject herself with insulin in an attempt to end her life. But the tournament officials - one of whom apparently helped Sharypova recover - have been acting as though the incident is none of their concern.

The rot is not just restricted to Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and the Laver Cup officials. Other players at the ATP Finals - including Dominic Thiem, Diego Schwartzman and Andrey Rublev - have also been mum on the issue. Notably, these three players are supposedly very close to Zverev off the court; the German even considers two of them (Thiem and Rublev) to be among his best friends.

Dominic Thiem and Diego Schwartzman have been liking most of Alexander Zverev's Instagram posts lately, which suggests nothing has changed in their relationship towards their pal. Rublev meanwhile had liked Zverev's post wherein he had issued a statement "clarifying" the situation, but he rescinded his like almost immediately. Maybe someone in his PR team asked him to keep his distance?

What is perhaps the most distressing though is that the ATP is reportedly discouraging journalists from asking players any questions on the topic during their press conferences.

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Ben Rothenberg, who did a detailed interview with Sharypova last month, revealed that he was muted by ATP moderators when he tried to ask a Zverev-related question to Rafael Nadal and Stefanos Tsitsipas in London.

All things considered, it has to be said that the ATP have handled the whole issue very poorly. The only acknowledgement they have made so far is an empty statement of their inability to take any action if the alleged victim doesn't press charges.

If Alexander Zverev goes on to win multiple Majors in future, and the sporting world at large digs up his past, are the ATP going to repeat that same empty statement and wash their hands off the entire matter?

It's not just the ATP though; even the WTA players haven't said much in support of Olga Sharypova. Barring Daria Gavrilova, who tweeted out her support to Sharypova the very day that the news broke out, not a single WTA star has come forward and expressed any concern on the issue.

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On the contrary, doubles player Antonia Lottner and singles World No. 11 Belinda Bencic, who are both friends with Alexander Zverev, have come out in support of their buddy on social media. They posted pro-Zverev comments on Bencic's Instagram post, expressing confidence in his innocence.

Zverev is also good friends with the greatest tennis player of all time, Serena Williams. And even Serena, who has never been afraid to speak out on sensitive topics in the past, hasn't said anything on the situation.

It's not Alexander Zverev who needs empathy right now

This is not the first instance of an ATP player being accused of domestic violence in 2020. Earlier in the year, Georgian player Nikoloz Basilashvili was accused by his ex-wife of domestic violence. The case is on trial right now, and Basilashvili could face up to three years in jail if the charges are proven.

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Nikoloz Basilashvili has been accused by his ex-wife of physical assault
Nikoloz Basilashvili has been accused by his ex-wife of physical assault

The Alexander Zverev case is a little different to Basilashvili's though, as Olga Sharypova has repeatedly said she has no plans of pressing charges. The Russian isn't looking for any monetary settlement either; there seems very little chance of any legal proceedings to be initiated against Zverev.

It is possible that the German will face no repercussions at all over this, even if he did in fact commit the crime he's been accused of. He is unlikely to face jail time, or even be forced to financially compensate Sharypova for the misery he caused her. And if there is no legal liability, he will never be suspended from the tennis tour either.

Alexander Zverev's career could soar to great heights, as expected from a player of his caliber. He will probably be one of the top tennis players in the world for the next 10-15 years, and add many more millions to his name along with multiple big titles.

But what about the girl who was allegedly driven to suicide because of his violent streak? Forget about justice, she might never even get an apology from him. And rabid fans will continue harassing her on social media forever, accusing her of lying - especially if Zverev continues to brush off her words as something being done to take 'attention away from the sport'.

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For many people, if an accusation is never proven, it automatically acquits the accused. For such people, Olga Sharypova might always be "the bitch who wanted to leech off her ex-boyfriend's success". These aren't my words, and I'm not making stuff up as I go; just look at the comments on her recent Instagram posts.

Before showing sympathy to Zverev for what HE is supposedly going through, shouldn't we first think of what Sharypova is going through? If her accusations are indeed true, what kind of trauma must she be suffering when she sees the whole world closing ranks around her tormentor?

Yes, there is no ground to pronounce Alexander Zverev guilty without a trial. And I understand that players have to be diplomatic while talking about the issue. But when you are sympathetic to one party while completely ignoring the other, that just shows how willing you are to believe the accused rather than the alleged victim.

I get that it is normal for a person's primary instinct to trust their colleague - and in some cases here, their friend. But on an issue as sensitive as domestic violence, the accused shouldn't summarily be given the benefit of doubt, let alone be blindly trusted, just because they belong to the same fraternity as you.

Doing that is a huge disservice to the person who has spoken out. And it's not just about Olga Sharypova; in the future, every victim might refrain from speaking out just because of their abuser's celebrity status.

Tennis' handling of the Alexander Zverev situation indicates that an accused celebrity can live their life like nothing ever happened and nothing changed, just because everyone remained silent or proclaimed them innocent until proven guilty. That's a deeply uncomfortable thought for every abuse victim in the world.

Published 29 Nov 2020, 15:54 IST
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