‘Uncomfortable’ reality staring Aus Open in the face — and the ugly ‘boys club’ keeping star safe

‘Uncomfortable’ reality staring Aus Open in the face — and the ugly ‘boys club’ keeping star safe

We would never want to suggest that the Australian Open would play favourites.

But we’re sure they wouldn’t mind Daniil Medvedev notching up a win in Friday night’s semi-final.

That’s because the noise around Alexander Zverev, the sixth seed playing under a dark cloud of multiple domestic violence accusations and an impending trial, will only get louder if the German makes it to the men’s singles final.

Zverev, a former world No.2, has found himself a perennial almost-there contender, with this being his sixth grand slam semi-final appearance thanks to his first ever win over a top-five player against Carlos Alcaraz on Wednesday night.

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But he has made just one slam final, the 2020 US Open – which coincidentally was the first slam in 16 years without Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer in the last four – where he lost from two sets up against Dominic Thiem.

Zverev is a live chance to upset Medvedev, though the Russian has won 10 of their past 12 meetings and dropped just nine sets across them (all in three-setters). The latest edition of the Netflix ‘Break Point’ series spotlighted the pair as rivals, though it painted Medvedev as the villain and did not mention Zverev’s abuse allegations, framing which left many tennis fans appalled.

Alexander Zverev has most notably beaten Cam Norrie and Carlos Alcaraz on his path to the semi-finals. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

Given that the two in-form players of the tour, Djokovic and Jannik Sinner, are facing off in the other semi-final it’s likely whoever wins Friday’s afternoon match will be strongly favoured against Medvedev or Zverev.

But Melbourne Park, where Zverev has been more intensely questioned about his status than anywhere over the past three years, hosting the German’s potential career highlight would be an ugly moment for Craig Tiley and Tennis Australia. (Not that they could’ve done anything about it; it’s just unfortunate for them.)

“It’d be an uncomfortable situation (for the tournament),” journalist and author Ben Rothenberg, who has reported on the case more intensely than almost anyone on the planet, told ABC Radio Breakfast.

“He hasn’t made a grand slam final since this whole saga started in late 2020. He did win an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo, so he’s been a top player for sure, but I think the idea of having him in the final of this grand slam – where it has gotten more attention than at any grand slam before, through a confluence of recent factors – it’d be an incredibly awkward situation for the tournament, and viewers, and fans, and people who want their tennis to be an escape.”

As mentioned, the Australian Open isn’t necessarily to blame for this situation – they weren’t going to create their own domestic violence policy against the will of the rest of the ATP tour. And it’s the tennis world more broadly that has come in for criticism in recent weeks and months.

Zverev has been treated effectively the same as any player by the men’s tour, celebrated and spotlighted in social media videos with the accusations barely mentioned – if at all – during his matches. If anything this is where the Australian Open deserves some minor credit, as they have only posted to social media about Zverev when absolutely necessary (typically just when he wins a match), rather than featuring his on or off-court actions.

It hasn’t been a complete straight bat; notably after his fourth-round win, the American on-court interviewer jovially chatted with Zverev, even getting the crowd to sing happy birthday to Zverev’s dad – who was accused by Olga Sharypova, his son’s first ex-partner to allege abuse, of berating her while she locked herself in a bathroom after one of the incidents.

Alexander Zverev of Germany is interviewed by Jim Courier after winning their quarterfinals singles match against Carlos Alcaraz of Spain during the 2024 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 24, 2024 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

Most jarring is the fact Zverev’s ATP peers elected him to the player council this month, throwing into question their judgement, and whether they even care about the accusations. Believing he is innocent, when he has not been proven guilty by the legal system, is fine; voting for him to become one of their representatives is unnecessary and troubling.

“The men have all uniformly said ‘oh, I don’t know anything about that, I can’t comment’, and the women have been more clear in at least saying ‘there’s something not right here, there’s something unusual, uncomfortable here, and it’s not normal this person is being promoted while still facing these very disturbing charges’,” Rothenberg said.

He added: “It’s a classic ‘boys club’ thing in a lot of ways. There’s a big fraternity of men in the locker room and on the tour who look out for each other, and don’t want things like this with women to derail a golden boy’s career.

“He’s been someone who’s been groomed to be the next big superstar from a young age. There’s not a lot of eagerness from people inside the tennis establishment to do anything to derail this plan, even when these accusations have continued to pile up.”

Zverev has bristled at questions over the accusations throughout the tournament, primarily because the noise around his issues contrasts so heavily with the relative silence from the tennis world in recent years.

“So much of it was swept over the rug for so long that people eventually started tripping over the rug,” Rothenberg quipped.

“It was a very lumpy rug, because of the situation tennis has built for itself through these years of neglect, let’s say, on this issue.

“Other sports are organised to deal with it a lot more efficiently because other sports have unions, and have collective bargaining agreements, and have rules in place – domestic violence policies – where once there is an accusation, a player is stood down and can sit out, often with pay.

“But tennis doesn’t have that. Tennis is all independent contractors playing for prize money – if Zverev was taken out of the sport, his ranking would plummet, he wouldn’t make any money, because you only make money from playing matches in tennis, so he would probably sue the sport if he was denied being able to play before any legal adjudication had been made.

“The tour could’ve been more proactive though. They do have vague rules in the rule book that say conduct unbecoming of the sport, or pending charges, can lead to removal but they’ve chosen not to implement that in this case.”

Zverev heads out onto Rod Laver Arena for his semi-final at 7:30pm AEDT on Friday.

He’ll have some fans; but Medvedev, long a villain at Melbourne Park, will surely have the support of most.

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