HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Tennis player Alexander Zverev, a man at fault
The French Open is in full swing. Next Gen German player Alexander Zverev, also known as Sascha, looks good. Overall, he has had a good year. He’s had a successful run on the ATP tour, most recently lifting the ATP Madrid Masters cup for the second time in his short career. The tall, lanky blond is an enthusiastic participant at the opens and often makes it past the third round, but while he has yet to lift a grand-slam trophy, news broke earlier this week of another kind of slam that Zverev is an eager participant of – punching women in the face. Well, at least one, for now.
Olga Sharypova and Zverev first met when they were about 14. Their teen romance fizzled out and six years later, both in their early twenties, they reconnected and dated for 13 months. The relationship started as Zverev exited the US Open in 2018 after a third-round loss. Little did the public know that he was counting his “wins” elsewhere.
A year after their relationship ended, Sharypova sat across from a friend and scrolled through pictures on her phone searching for two selfies. In one of them, Sharypova has dark bruises on her face and in the other, similar bruises appear on her arm. In an interview with Raquet Magazine at the beginning of May this year, Sharypova says the conversation with her friend, after showing her the photos, went something like this – Friend: What is this? Sharypova: This is Sascha.
I love seeing new talent rise on the circuit. Of course, I am and always will be a dedicated supporter of the old guard, that is Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – on the men’s circuit, (I exclude Novak Djokovich from this for his sexism and peacockery on and off the court, which I just can’t stand, and his views that women should not receive equal pay). But Nadal and Federer are just all-round good guys.
I thought the same of Zverev. His cherub-like appearance, his sweet smile, the way he is always handing memorabilia and other personal items to the many, many young fans who adore him, a lot of them little boys and of course, his perfectly symmetrical face equal only to his almost perfectly balanced tennis game. But after I read Sharypova’s story, all was ruined, and when he played his second-round match on Wednesday, I was overcome with nausea and couldn’t stand to watch him.
There, on the other side of the world is a twenty-something woman who tried to overdose on insulin because a tennis player smothered her with a pillow and punched her in the face, and in Paris, there he is. Being received by applause and adoration like a young, romanticised god.
The tennis world is well versed in racism. It remains an institution run by white men and steeped in patriarchy, even though it is often referred to as a game of gentleman as opposed to what one would consider more toxically masculine games like American football. But even the National Football League in America has a policy against domestic and gender-based violence and its players face hefty fines and other punishments if there are any allegations.
The tennis world finds itself on the back foot and it’s not just because they have unrevised policies, but also because they remain silent and complicit in the behaviour and perpetuate existing and wholly outdated patriarchal structures.
One can almost forgive Zverev’s ignorance and arrogance as revealed in his blanket statement where he addressed the issue, saying the allegations were simply not true and unfounded. His manager followed suit and issued another statement saying that Zverev had already addressed the situation on Instagram and that he wished Sharypova would have gone to Zverev and the family first before going to the media.
What does this even mean? It reeks of dodgy behaviour, brown envelope payoffs and possible backdoor threats in the name of silence. But again, one can almost forgive the manager for his obtuse and damaging words. Not everyone is well versed in what it takes to be an actual man. Again, I point to Djokovich’s decades-long sexist antics. But these are the very reasons why institutions need to hold these people to account.
Casual tennis fans watch tennis. Dedicated ones watch not just the game, but the governing bodies and we notice their silence all the time. In the case of Zverev, it is very, very loud. Anyone who subscribes to the dedicated online ATP channel will know that like anything else, it is a business. But then the same can be said for the NBA or the NFL or the MLB. All of which have interests in protecting their brands, but also, in being transparent about their players’ behaviour, initiating independent investigations and taking action against the accused.
The ATP released a statement only two weeks after Sharypova shared her story and it read: “The ATP fully condemns any form of violence or abuse. We expect all members of the Tour to do the same, and to refrain from any conduct that is violent, abusive, or puts others at risk. In circumstances where allegations of violence or abuse are made against any member of the Tour, legal authorities investigate and due process is applied, we then review the outcome and decide the appropriate course of action. Otherwise, we are unable to comment further on specific allegations.”
Action has yet to be taken and the ATP is operating under the hope that these allegations will disappear, and the show can go on.
Mirroring Zverev’s own runner-up speech in Paris and a revisited take on the matter: “I know that there’s gonna be a lot of people that right now are trying to wipe a smile off my face but under this mask I’m smiling brightly,” he said. “I feel incredible on court [...] everything is great in my life. The people who are trying can keep trying.”
We would all love everyone to condemn conduct that’s “violent, abusive or puts others at risk”, but we know that isn’t enough, don’t we ATP?
The ball is in your court. Put some respect on it before you serve it back.
Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.