The tennis world has long been full of complicated, hard-to-understand jargon. Love? Deuce? Ace? It’s almost as if tennis has created its own kind of language.
However, one thing that has become increasingly clear over recent years, one thing which does not require too much translation, is the ATP’s (Association of Tennis Professionals) constant failures in addressing charges of sexism, domestic violence, and misogyny against its players, with statements tending always to avoid upset, rather than to hold accountable.
We have consistently seen the ATP fall short of appropriate responses to serious allegations against top-level tennis players. In October 2020, accusations of domestic violence against current world number three Alexander Zverev emerged. Zverev’s ex-girlfriend, Olga Sharypova, shared her story in an interview with The New York Times. She and Zverev had met as teenagers at a tennis summer camp. Sharypova herself was a gifted tennis player, but as she moved into adulthood realised she wanted to pursue other interests, exploring alternative career paths. It became difficult for both to sustain their relationship, with Zverev living in Germany and Sharypova in Moscow. It wasn’t until six years later, when they both found themselves in New York, that they would reunite – rekindling their romance.
But hers and Zverev’s relationship was not the fairy-tale love affair it appeared on the tin. In her interview, Olga remembers the first time an argument between her and Zverev became physical. He apparently hit her against the wall, whilst berating her, shouting “you’re nobody!”
The abuse becomes even harder to read, as Olga goes on to describe a situation she claims happened during Zverev’s time competing in the 2019 US open. She recalls being “scared for her life” as Zverev “threw [her] down onto the bed, took a pillow, and then sat on [her] face”.
After one particularly horrific fight, Sharypova, feeling as if she lacked another escape, injected herself with a supply of insulin. For a person not suffering from diabetes, an injection of insulin can be lethal: “I injected it, and I wasn’t scared; I just wanted to leave in some way, because I [couldn’t] stand it anymore”.
Thankfully, Sharypova was found by an event official and given glucose tablets to counteract the insulin. She recovered from the incident, and finally sought the help of her family, who were shocked to hear about her situation. Her and Zverev are no longer together.
Another article, published by Slate, discussing the allegations has now been removed. On the site, a message in plain black font on the top of the screen reads: “This article has been temporarily removed due to an emergency injunction that was issued by a German court and obtained before Slate could appear and present evidence. Slate is now contesting that injunction and stands by its fair and accurate reporting based on multiple sources and interviews”.
Allegations of domestic violence are difficult to prove, as hard evidence often does not exist, and so cases are sometimes left un-investigated. Statistics show that in London, only 65.8% of domestic abuse allegations end in prosecution.
But despite the complex nature of domestic abuse cases, the response from the ATP borders on negligent. Their initial response was to put out a statement condemning “any form of violence and abuse”. But apart from this, the ATP stayed silent for a year before finally launching an internal investigation in October 2021, from which we have received few updates. The ATP does not yet have a domestic abuse policy set in place, compared to other sporting associations, and are facing criticisms for still not having contacted Sharypova concerning their investigation. In the meantime, Zverev continues to shine on court, having recently won gold in the Tokyo Olympics, and becoming the third-ranked ATP tennis player worldwide.
This is not the first time that the ATP have fallen short in their response to allegations of domestic abuse. In May 2020, tennis player Nikoloz Basilashvili was arrested for an alleged assault on his ex-wife in front of their five-year-old son. While the case is still undetermined, the ATP have maintained a cold silence on the matter. Both Zverev and Basilashvili continue to compete on the ATP tour, and neither faced any kind of sanction.
Another instance of ATP negligence came amidst reports of missing Chinese tennis player, Peng Shuai. One of China’s most successful tennis stars, Shuai was reported missing after having accused a retired Chinese government official of sexual assault. The situation aroused worldwide concern, but yet again the ATP’s response was pathetic and quiet. They issued only a very short statement in relation to the issue. This stands in contrast to the WTA’s (Women’s Tennis Association) response, which called for the suspension of all tournaments in China until Shuai was found safely.
In light of these cases, serious questions are to be asked concerning the ATP’s conduct in handling allegations of sexism, misogyny, and domestic abuse against its players. Not only is it disappointing, but it is dangerous, having the potential to set precedents that fall short of appropriate responses. It sends a certain message to players: that the association will turn a blind eye to domestic abuse. The ATP still does not have a domestic abuse policy set in place, which would make it easier for them to respond in these situations, potentially banning accused players from participating in tournaments until legal cases have been adjourned, for example.
Having been a fan of tennis since I was young, the ATP’s mishandling of such cases against women is a difficult pill to swallow, and certainly shines a much more negative light on the world of tennis. Hopefully, we can look forward to a time when this changes, but until then, we should be aware of the shortcomings of the ATP in handling cases against women. For such actions (or indeed inaction) in regards to violence against women transcends the world of tennis.