Hello and welcome to the 27th issue of Tennis inbox. This week: allegations of domestic violence on tour; PR wins and misses; and the tours come to a halt (soon).
Alexander Zverev, domestic violence, and the ATP
If you knew nothing of the domestic violence allegations against World #7 Alexander Zverev, you might have thought that his strange concession speech after the Paris-Bercy Masters final was just the words of a player giddy on his own performance. After losing to Daniil Medvedev 7–5, 4–6, 1–6, Zverev said:
“I know there’s going to be a lot of people that are trying to wipe a smile off my face, but under this mask I’m smiling brightly. I feel incredible on court and I have the people that I love around me. I’m probably going to be a father very soon, so everything is great in my life. They keep trying, but I’m still smiling under this mask.”
But given the seriousness of the allegations against him, Zverev’s words can be seen as a poor rejoinder at best and a PR fuck-up at worst. If you’re not aware, Zverev’s ex girlfriend, Olya Sharypova, has alleged that Zverev engaged in physical and emotional violence against her during their relationship, including acts such as sitting on her face after putting a pillow over her head. In an interview with Ben Rothenberg for Racquet Magazine, Sharypova says that she also attempted to take her own life after Zverev’s continuous abuse. The allegations are harrowing, and I encourage you to read the full story for yourself if you have not already.
As Jon Wertheim has pointed out in Sports Illustrated, this is not simply a “he said, she said” story where one party has made allegations and the other has denied them. Sharypova’s story of abuse by Zverev—if not the actual abuse—is corroborated by at least two other people.
The fact that the ATP has been silent on these allegations hasn’t been lost on many. But here tennis is in a unique situation: that domestic violence among tennis players seems to be relatively rare compared to other popular sports. Take the NBA and NFL, for example. Almost every year we hear of a player being disgraced for the treatment and abuse of a partner. Tennis, on the other hand, has only had the recent cases of current player Nikoloz Basilashvili, and former player Justin Gimelstob. Even those are considered outliers.
So far, Zverev has skirted around the accusations. When news first broke of Sharypova’s allegations, Zverev’s statement focused on news of his impending fatherhood and only addressed Sharypova’s allegations second:
To recap the issue, I’ll refer to Jon Wertheim’s words again: “This is: she-made-a-detailed-allegation-backed-by-supporting-documentation-and-has-a-friend-who-offers-a-contemporaneous-account….he-responded-clumsily-in-the-same-post-in-which-he-confirmed-that-a-different-ex-girlfriend-is-pregnant-with-his-child.”
I have been clear that the purview of this newsletter is tennis. I don’t necessarily want to comment about the intimate details of a player’s life. And matters such as domestic violence are best litigated in courtrooms as opposed to on newsletters, blogs, podcasts, and social media. The issue is that Olya Sharypova doesn’t want to press charges, which has left this case to be tried in the court of public opinion. And given that the entire tennis world seems to be aware of it, I thought it’d be wrong to ignore this story.
So what’s going to happen? Probably nothing. Unless Sharypova decides to press charges, the rumors and allegations will continue to swirl around Zverev. It goes without saying that Zverev has the presumption of innocence behind him, but his handling of the matter—(why didn’t he, for example, condemn domestic violence in any of his press conferences? It’s a stock standard move, even from a PR perspective)—tied in with his bizarre words after his loss to Medvedev aren’t helping the situation. Perhaps something is afoot behind the curtains. Maybe the ATP is investigating on their own accord and are keeping this private. Perhaps there’s an out-of-court settlement in the works from Zverev’s team. The truth is that we don’t know; all we can do is speculate.
Nick Kyrgios’ reputation rehab
Speaking about PR, Nick Kyrgios seems to be in reputation rehab mode. You would think the years of meltdowns, obscene comments about players’ girlfriends, and various other misdemeanors would have solidified his reputation as an outlier to the current prototype of the generally well-behaved professional tennis player.
But an adoring profile published in stellar in the Sunday Telegraph hopes to add depth to that reputation. In it, we learn that Kyrgios has spent his time during the pandemic creating care packages made from groceries and distributing them to Australians in need, training, and getting quality time with his family and girlfriend. The profile’s writer, Karlie Rutherford, an Entertainment Reporter for the Daily Telegraph, states: “Perhaps it’s simply that, at last, the real Nick Kyrgios is standing up.”
Rutherford then goes on to highlight Kyrgios’ transition from tennis’ bad boy to a more sanguine figure—starting off with his pledge to donate $200 for every ace served to victims of the Australian bushfires, and ending at his continued involvement with the Nick Kyrgios Foundation, “which was established in 2015 to provide sporting opportunities and a safe space for underprivileged youth in Melbourne.”
These are all respectable changes. Many tennis players make millions of dollars and rarely think about giving back. But while it’s commendable that Kyrgios seems to be more aware of his impact these days, his understanding of being a tennis player and a public figure seems to be a little simplistic. Kyrgios says in the profile:
“When I’m doing an interview after matches, they [might be] talking about my forehand and how badly I hit it and I’m like, ‘There are people around the world who don’t have access to clean water. I think it’s a bit of a joke that you’re asking about my forehand.'”
Say what? Does Kyrgios want interviewers to ask him questions about how to achieve world peace and end world hunger instead? I don’t get it. Does Kyrgios want to be thought of as a Miss Universe contestant or a tennis player?
Maybe I’m being too critical. The nature of young prodigies is that they are thrust into the limelight at an early age. An age where their critical decision-making faculties might not have been fully formalized. And it’s no doubt that Kyrgios has been the victim of his own decision making, which has often been lacking foresight and awareness for the consequences of his actions.
Kyrgios has been missing from the tour since it restarted. During that time, he’s gotten into Twitter spats (with Boris Becker) and used his platform to target tennis players who have been misbehaving (Djokovic for the Adria Tour; Zverev for partying after being in close contact with a person with coronavirus).
Think what you will of the policing via social media. I know I’d much rather see him back on court than fighting with people on Twitter. Yet that’s exactly the problem, according to Kyrgios. Talking about his recently revealed battle with depression, Kyrgios says: “I felt like no-one wanted to know me as a person, they just wanted to get a hold of me as a tennis player….”
I’m sure that being a public figure must be challenging in its own ways. Not that I would know about it. But the reality is that if you become renowned over the world for doing one thing well… then that’s what people will think of you as. In Kyrgios’ case, that’s: tennis player.
I’m not convinced that the real Kyrgios is “standing up” these days (whatever that means). Rather, I just think he’s mellowing out and developing as a person—as human beings are wont to do as they age.
Change of Ends with Neel Roy
What do club/recreational players neglect the most when they play?
Besides the obvious serve/return practice, most club players neglect to warm up and cool down before and after playing. This often leads to injuries that take the player out for a month or so from the sport. Ask your pro for the right way to get warmed up even 10 minutes before stepping on the court.
What do you encourage your students to focus on when it comes to playing a match?
I always point out the joy of playing tennis in a competitive setting. That sets the tone for a positive feeling when stepping on the court. Strategically, I encourage students to play to emphasize their strengths and play around weaknesses.
Which professional player’s mindset do you admire and why? How do you try to teach this mindset to your students?
I really admire Nadal’s attitude both on the practice court and during a match. He always comes to the court ready to maximize his effort, even if he isn’t playing well or not “feeling it” that day. I tell students that tennis is “their” time away from the grind of life so enjoy the experience without distractions.
Have a question you’d like a coach to answer? Are you a coach who’d like to contribute? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
The end of a crazy year
The Linz Open, the Sofia Open, and the Nitto ATP Finals; after these tournaments, the tours will come to a halt.
They nearly didn’t start, though. After the Australian swing, when news of a mysterious pneumonia-like disease was spreading around the world, many thought that it would be best to write off the 2020 season and look ahead to 2021 instead. Yet tournament organizers persisted. As more knowledge about how the coronavirus was spread became evident, organizers worked with health authorities to devise competitions that adhered to safety protocols. The result of this careful planning? A series of tournaments meticulously planned and executed across the world, with rarely any mishaps. (I’m not talking about those exhibitions here… you know which ones.)
On the tours and off of them, it was a time of innovation.
Patrick Mouratoglou’s Ultimate Tennis Showdown shook things up and provided tennis fans a shorter, sharper, and perhaps more exciting brand of tennis. A brand of tennis that some tennis fans believe that the sport needs to be moved towards if it’s to stay relevant in the years to come.
We saw the UTR Pro Series kick things off in Australia and provide up-and-coming talents—the class of players who were neglected once the top-tier tours restarted—an opportunity to compete and make their livings. More UTR Pro Series are on the calendar (taking place in different countries, too).
The implementation of Hawkeye-live raised a legitimate question: do we still need linespeople in tennis?
And it seemed like everyone was playing tennis. As one of the most covid-safe sports, here in Australia, right at the peak of the pandemic, tennis courts were filled with eager players.
Was it the same for you where you live?
Tennis-wise (and it goes without saying, everthing-wise), it’s been a crazy year.
There’ll be some time off after the Nitto ATP Finals, but Tennis Australia has big plans for what could be an even more extravagant—and longer—Australian summer of tennis. We’ll delve into those in next week’s issue.