Mailbag: Alexander Zverev's Response to Abuse Allegations

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Hey everyone. Some tennis chatter to take our mind off other sport….

• Last week’s podcast featured the great Tom Gilovich talking tennis and cognitive psychology…and Brittany Collens on the UMass tennis farce.

• Next up, Craig O’Shannessy talking tennis analytics.

Onward…..

Mailbag

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Any thoughts on how the ITF and ATP should respond [to the Zverev allegations], Jon? If these accusations lead to charges in a court of law, should he be suspended pending the results?
@jakarta200887

• This of course pertains to Olya Sharypova’s allegation that she was a victim of domestic violence at the hands (literally) of her former boyfriend, Alexander Zverev. A few thoughts:

1) These are allegations and not charges. And, as always, the accused is entitled to presumptions….

2) But these are serious and credible accusations. And the idea, as a few of you suggested, that this is a “she-said-he-said” is really misguided. 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. No criminal charges have been filed (though the statute of limitations in New York has not lapsed). And surely there is more to the story that is likely to emerge and will better inform judgment. But it is sloppy and wrong to suggest that these are simply two competing accounts that somehow cancel each other out.

3) Several of you asked about the ATP’s role here. Other, more conventional, leagues have domestic violence policies that have been collectively bargained, often drafted in conjunction with a players’ association. That’s not how tennis is set up. But there is language in the ATP rule book that could result in discipline. (Note p. 214.) Therefore….

4) The ATP ought to give serious consideration to ordering up an independent investigation. In a “read-the-room” kind of way, do you really want to ignore an alleged act of domestic violence, committed (allegedly) by a top player…during a tournament…in a tournament hotel? This was not an alleged bad act on the order of doping or match-fixing, that undermines competition. But if conduct “severely damaging to the reputation of the sport” is the standard, this would sure seem to threaten to meet the threshold. (All the more so if criminal charges stem, which hardly seems out of the question.) An investigation may absolve the accused. It’s possible the accuser will decline to cooperate. But it’s not a good look, as they say, for the ATP do nothing when a woman alleges that a player, “tried to choke me with a pillow, hit my head against the wall, twisted my hands.”

5) I asked an NBA executive how his league would handle this fact pattern. That is, if Zverev were an NBA player, what would happen? His response: “He would likely be provisionally suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation; at least under the NBA’s applicable domestic violence policy.”

6) I would suggest that it’s also relevant—not dispositive, of course; but relevant—that the accuser is a former tennis player of some note. She knows the culture. She knows the tour. She is friends with current top WTA players; she competed against others; she is friends with the wives of top ATP players. It would suggest that Sharypova did not take lightly her decision to attach her name to serious allegations.

7) I heard from a few of you—including former players and rival agents—expressing shock at these allegations. This really seems to have rattled fans and administrators and those who follow the sport closely. Whatever tennis’ challenges and defects, the “good people quotient” has always been a source of pride. Players may tank matches or pop off at officials; but, especially among top players, there’s not a lot of intersection with the police beat or criminal justice system or other darker corners. Real or imagined, this perception and sense of pride has now been punctured a bit.

8) Zverev is 23, which is still relatively young. He has a world of talent. He came within a point of taking a major title this year. He’s done a lot of other winning this year. He has also flouted COVID protocol; jeopardized an entire major by playing a match while admittedly sick with COVID-like symptoms. He is still in court with a former agent. Now this accusation. Just as his adidas deal comes due. Zverev is likely to work on his serve this off-season. He may want to devote considerably greater attention to a reputation in need of repair.

Hi Jon. I hope you're well. Thought I would pass this along (below). Here's a tennis analogy I used a note to clients last night: Our analogy is about the electoral college, which we see as being very similar to the tennis scoring system. Each state is like a set (not exactly, because states have different electoral vote values, but hang with us here.) The popular vote is like the points in a tennis match— a misleading indicator. Trump’s best chance of winning is to do what Novak Djokovic did to Roger Federer in last year’s Wimbledon final. Federer won 14 more points than Djokovic, but lost three sets to two. It’s hard to win 14 more points than your opponent in tennis and still lose. Djokovic won all three of his sets in tiebreaks. The final score was 7-6, 1-6, 7-6, 4-6, 13-12. (Federer had, and lost, two match points.)

Trump essentially took the Djokovic path to victory in 2016, losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 2.1 percentage points. But it looks likely that he will lose the popular vote by even more this time. If Trump wins, he will almost surely lose the equivalent of 6-1 sets in California and New York, and win the equivalent of tiebreak sets in states like Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. As every tennis player knows—painfully so in Federer’s case—you don’t get any more credit for a 6-1 set than you do for a 7-6 set.
Cheers, Ian

• Thanks. Foolishly, I tried to crib from this on Twitter and—on Election Eve—make the point that the tennis scoring system contained statistical quirks (defects?) similar to those of the electoral college. Just as Djokovic could beat Federer in the Wimbledon final winning fewer points and games—but the right points and games—Trump could lose the popular vote but win the “right” votes and thus take the electoral college. Serves me right for venturing here amid a hotly contested election but people saw “Trump,” “Djokovic” and “Federer” in the same tweet, assumed this was a political analogy and not probability analogy, and it was knives out.

I do think the larger point is interesting, as is the way group data sets. If you’re for reading to distract from the election here’s Ryan Rodenberg on this point. And on this same topic, Jeff Sackman offered a great thought exercise @tennisabstract: “In honor of last week's Sabalenka-Sorribes rollercoaster, here's a brain teaser: Sorribes Tormo won 10 straight games, but it was not the longest game streak of the match. What's the longest possible game streak that is NOT the longest streak of the match? (standard best-of-3).”

(Hint: the answer is not 12.)

I was browsing through tennis.com and saw this headline:
"On this day, 25 years ago, Serena Williams made her pro tennis debut." And then just stared at it for a while.
This is a player who’s made the finals of four of the last nine Grand Slams. This is a standard that goes well beyond excellence into comic absurdity. And that’s without considering the fact that she went off in between to have a baby. With any other player, in any other sport, this would be a monumental achievement. With Serena Williams, we sigh and saying she’s in a slump. Forget GOAT in tennis, I’d argue that her case for being the greatest female athlete in any sport is close to iron-clad. 25 years later, she’s still a top contender at every major. Goddamn!

C. Fernandes, Chicago

• Gosh darn, is right! I’ll say it again: we are numbingly familiar with the Williams Family Story. And at the same time, it remains criminally undertold and undersold, one of the great legends that will echo deep into the future. For 25 years—25 years! Full stop. A quarter century—they have left their heelprints on the backs of draws. Venus has won seven majors. And by more than a 3:1 margin, she is the LESS accomplished of the two sisters.

A few months ago, I was looking into doing a piece on the Bryans and absently saw that if you include majors and Olympic gold medals, the Williams sisters were every bit the DOUBLES team as the Bryan Brothers. This veers into cartoonish. And want a failsafe prediction? Man, will this story age well. Our grandkids’ grandkids will be learning about these two sisters, who dominated a global sport. And did so over multiple decades.

I’ll always love tennis and have my favorite players to root for, but, as a gay man myself, I’ve always wondered why there are so few out gay men on the tour. It seems like tennis wouldn’t face the fear of being gay in the locker room like team sports, and overall it has a strong history of supporting social causes. While there are plenty of socially/religiously conservative nations in the tennis world, there are also a lot of more progressive nations with tennis federations.

There are several gay women in tennis—why do you think there are so few gay men? (I’m not trying to out anyone! Just looking for your thoughts.)
Ben G., Austin, Texas

• I’m dumbfounded as well. In 2020—when BYU , not exactly known as a socially progressive redoubt, will promote its out-and-proud athletes—it’s both mystifying and statistically improbable that there are no gay players in, say, the ATP’s top 100. Multiple players have suggested that gay colleagues simply don’t exist. Could it be that the pool is self-selecting and gay kids are opting out of sports? I don’t reject that out of hand. But I think it’s unlikely and the better explanation: there are gay players and they have chosen to keep their sexuality private.

I spoke about this fairly recently with a Hall of Fame player (whom I don’t want to mention without their permission). I think an openly gay player would be a cult favorite with fans and probably select sponsors. There would be widespread support—or simply indifference—among top players. The tennis media and infrastructure would be supportive. The Hall of Famer made two points: A) In women’s tennis, a few players have concealed their sexuality not because of feared backlash among colleagues but feared backlash from family including their parents. B) Tennis players try to do everything in their favor to succeed and weed out distraction. If 97 players in the locker room are cool and three make the player uncomfortable or complicate the situation, he might make a professional decision to stay quiet.

In a roundabout way, this story—sadly from more than a decade ago—makes this same point.

Hello Jon, I stumbled across the documentary Guillermo Vilas: Settling the Score on Netflix last night and found it truly fascinating. Not just for its central topic of fighting for Vilas‘ status as an ATP number one in the mid-seventies, but also for its glimpses into a long gone tennis era and an enigmatic personality. Highly recommended. Plus: Andrea Petkovic has published a (currently German only) memoir: Zwischen Ruhm und Ehre liegt die Nacht: Erzählungen. (Translates to something like, Glory and Honor are Divided by the Night: Recollections.)
All the best, Paul, Mannheim, Germany

• Thanks. I rather enjoyed the Vilas documentary. It left some questions unanswered. I remain fuzzy on the math v/v Vilas’ ranking. And I wished it had the classic confrontation scene. But it had a lot of heart. And, really, weighing the balance of interests, can’t the ATP admit an error 40+ years out and acknowledge Vilas a rightful No. 1? And yes, we will happily plug Andrea’s book. And eagerly await English translation.

Had an epiphany today: If you made a player with the best stroke or skill from every other player besides Nadal (Isner serve, Delpo forehand, Novak backhand etc.), would Nadal still be the betting favorite against this player at Roland Garros? This also brings to light Nadal's sole loss at RG to Soderling. Soderling had a huge game, but what was the difference? Was this the one time that someone wanted it more than Nadal?
Brian S.

• Interesting exercise. If you could “Frankenstein” a player and take the best attributes of the field, could they best the Best in Class? Take Peak Serena at Wimbledon or Federer at Wimbledon in the mid-aughts or Djokovic in Australia. How would they fare against DelPo’s forehand, Murray’s tennis cortex, Monfils’ court coverage, Isner’s serve, Djokovic’s return, etc.? I suspect you’re right about Nadal on clay. Hard to see him losing to a combination of players.

The Soderling win persists—more than a decade later—as one of the great tennis upsets. First, give Soderling his due. The guy reached two French Open finals; and the quarters at four other Majors. His career was cut short, but this was a top-shelf player. Also, it was a reminder how delicate this sport can be—and, by extension, how sharp top players must be. One off-day. One unshakable opponent. One niggling injury. One distracting personal issue….and poof.

"Nadal vs. Djokovic is the greatest rivalry of all time in men’s tennis. Not only have they met more times than any other pair....” Really? What about Laver vs. Rosewall? "Including tournaments and one-night stands, they played at least 164 matches with Laver leading 89–75." Perhaps D. Rabbitt is talking about the Open Era.
Mark Flannery, Fullerton, Calif.

• Let’s limit this to Open Era. And let’s specify that “one-night-stands” applies only to barnstorming exhibitions. Here’s a good primer from our friends at the ATP:

“Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have met more than any other two players in the Open Era, a record 56 times.”

Shots, Miscellany

• There’s a new ATP Board member. Eno Polo. From the ATP: “Following yesterday evening’s ATP Player Council meeting in Paris, Eno Polo has been elected as Player Representative for the International Region on the ATP Board of Directors….Polo brings over 20 years of experience as a leader in the apparel and footwear industry, working with leading brands such as Nike and Havaianas. Most recently, he was named president of Europe for Global Brands Group. He also serves as a Board member of Seven Global, a joint venture with David Beckham.”

New digs, Maria Sharapova.

Another WTA retirement.

• Help our man, Lucas land a TV job: