Zverev domestic violence case and the questions ATP, tennis face

Zverev domestic violence case and the questions ATP, tennis face

On the second season of the Netflix pro tennis docudrama Break Point, an episode titled Unfinished Business gathered far more notice than others. It featured world No.6 Alexander Zverev and his comeback from a career-threatening injury in the 2022 French Open semi-final.

Germany’s Alexander Zverev takes rest between the games against Britain’s Cameron Norrie (AFP)

But it was soon obvious that a big chunk of Zverev’s life became the unfinished business from that episode itself. It is possible that the show’s producers and Zverev’s entourage arrived at an understanding between the terms of access available and the opportunity to present an alternative narrative to the other unfinished business virtually entangled in Zverev’s shoelaces today.

Over the last three years, Zverev has been accused of (and denied) domestic violence against two women, one of whom is the mother of his child, the other an ex-girlfriend. In October, a German court fined him €450,000 ($490,733) for physical abuse of a woman and damage to her health, Brenda Patea, the mother of Zverev’s daughter Mayla. Zverev’s lawyers have contested this penalty order which means the case will now head for a public trial.

Through the ongoing Australian Open, reporters asked Zverev and other top pros about the court penalty and if he needed to be treated differently by the ATP following the court decision. Whether, for instance, it was appropriate he remains on the ATP Player’s Advisory Council.

Women’s world No.1 Iga Swiatek told a news conference at the Australian Open, “For sure, it is not good when a player that’s facing charges like that is, kind of, being promoted. But I don’t know if there is already investigation or (what) the case is going to be. So, I’m not sure what is the history, the other cases that he had, if he won or lost. So I guess you have to ask ATP what they wanna do because I’m not in the right position to judge.”

Promoted here refers to the public post on the player council, the twist to which is that it was Zverev’s peers who voted him onto the panel. Among the male pros, Grigor Dimitrov, Stephanos Tsitsipas, Cameron Norrie and Casper Ruud sidestepped the Zverev question saying they didn’t have enough details of the situation to make comment.

From October 2021, ATP had carried out an independent 15-month investigation into the Zverev allegations. In January 2023, ATP said it could not take any disciplinary action because the investigation “found insufficient evidence to substantiate published allegations of abuse.” What the German court penalty order which established legally that the evidence available was sufficient to dock a fine has done is turn the heat up once again on the ATP.

In September 2021, respected broadcaster and former pro Mary Carillo stepped away from working on the Laver Cup which featured Zverev because she didn’t want to avoid the abuse allegations while on air. Later Carillo told the Behind the Racquet podcast, “I don’t want to be part of the silence. If you’re quiet it suggests you’re complicit. There wasn’t a real investigation in Geneva, it’s crazy.” (Geneva 2019 was the Laver Cup event during which Zverev’s ex-girlfriend, former tennis pro Olya Sharypova, said she had been punched in the face by Zverev for the first time).

In an August 2021 article on Slate website in which he broke the story about the domestic allegations against Zverev, tennis writer Ben Rothenberg asked Roger Federer whether ATP needed to create a domestic violence policy or investigate the Zverev allegations. Federer said a policy would be tricky to implement as tennis players were independent contractors not salaried employees of leagues or clubs. “Of course, there needs to be a certain code like they have on the court,” he said, adding, “now you want to move over into the private life as well? I feel like for that we have other sets of rules — governments and all that stuff.” Yes, yes Roger but still… domestic violence?

What can or should sports bodies do when their top athletes face criminal allegations? Bengaluru-based lawyer Nandan Kamath, who specialises in sports and media law, says sports governing bodies (SGB) find themselves trapped in response to players’ off-field misdemeanours. Kamath says, “Any intervention by them is fraught with challenges.” His soon-to-be released book discusses, among other issues, the relationship between the public and private spheres of sport – like in the Zverev case.

Every sport has behavioural code which talks about “bringing disrepute to the game” but Kamath believes the implementation of regulations around off-field conduct are far more complicated than they may appear. For example, Manchester City froze French defender Benjamin Mendy’s wages in 2021 when he was charged with rape and sexual assault. Cleared of the charges last year, Mendy has taken City to court for unpaid wages between 9-10million pounds.

Where, Kamath asks, can or should SGBs draw the line: “Should violence be the trigger or criminality?” At what stage should sport intervene: “accusation, charge or conviction? Whose decisions can be relied on? What is a reasonable response? How can misuse be prevented?” The athlete, he reminds us, can as easily be a victim of heavy-handed regulation. What if, for example, the Wrestling Federation of India had an off-field conduct code for its athletes? It’s a terrifying thought.

Post the Tiger Woods scandal, endorsement contracts with elite athletes now include ‘morals’ or ‘disrepute’ clauses. In case of an unsalvageable public scandal, this ensures sponsors can pull out of deals even with high-value clients. SGBs however find themselves lapsing into “let the law take its own course mode” when its biggest names find themselves accused, like Kobe Bryant and Cristiano Ronaldo did, of rape.

While the ‘disrepute’ clauses may previously have been used “sparingly for non-sporting conduct,” Kamath says, “but that could well change”. He predicts that the ‘let the law take its course’ option may no longer be a “credible option”, particularly in the face of public pressure. In an age of full disclosure, social media cases like Zverev’s are ensuring that sports ruling bodies are forced to both declare and display greater responsiveness.

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