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Mailbag: ATP to Investigate Domestic Abuse Allegations Against Alexander Zverev

Monday's announcement at least gives the tennis community a potential path forward. Plus discussion on the Laver Cup, the San Diego Open and more.

Hey, everyone.

• Before we get to the dark stuff, here’s my colleague Stanley Kay to put you in a good mood with this dispatch from the All Iowa Lawn Tennis Club.

• If you missed it:

a) The ATP has announced an investigation into Alexander Zverev.

b) Tennis’s contingent of unvaccinated players adds a wrinkle to the Aussie Open.

c) Aryna Sabalenka tests positive and will miss Indian Wells …

• Good soldiering: “Tennis Channel and its affiliated platforms will be the only places to watch the prestigious BNP Paribas Open—known as one of the sport’s “Fifth Slams”—when it returns to Indian Wells, Calif., October 6-17, after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus due to the worldwide pandemic. This will mark the first time in the network’s 18-year history that it will be home to the entire event, from first ball to last. While Tennis Channel has held the lion’s share of live coverage for many years, in 2021 it will add championship weekend and all matches to its lineup.”

• Good soldiering, Part 2: a gentle reminder that 60 Minutes comes after Sunday football on CBS …

Mailbag

Jon, I have a simple question. What is going to happen to Alexander Zverev? Nothing, it seems. He is innocent until proven guilty, of course. But I am free to not want to have anything to do with his matches. When does this ever end and how does this ever end?
J.T., New York

• THAT—precisely that—is really a problem. Until Monday’s announcement, we had reached an impasse. This allegation was (and is) a stain on tennis. It was (and is) a stain on Zverev. And it was hard to see a path to any real or satisfactory resolution. Short of the accuser recanting her allegations, or the accused recanting his denial, or some new piece of evidence surfacing—none likely … we were consigned, to use a tennis term, to this no-man’s-land, where no party or sensibilities felt fully heard, much less validated.

That changed with Monday’s announcement.

I do feel like we need to pause here and note that this is not “he said, she said.” It’s: He said, she provided a detailed account replete with supporting evidence and photos and contemporaneous accounts. If you’re Zverev, as they say in the law, “there are a lot of bad facts here.” Not conclusive. Not dispositive. Not precluding an effective defense. But this reductive idea that “you have allegation and denial and are left with these are two conflicting accounts that cancel each other out; none of us was there, so who knows?” is really misplaced.

I also feel like we need to pause to address the “why didn’t she go to the cops/why didn’t the police investigate?” argument, such as it is. There are lots of reasons, well-documented, that an abuse victim would not want to go through legal proceedings. And without a victim’s testimony, it is highly unlikely that a criminal case would be pursued. Also, distasteful as this is to discuss, there is a time/resource consideration. We’re talking about a German athlete, a Russian woman, alleged incidents in New York, Basel and China. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars and time differences and people crossing oceans—and, yes, a deep-pocketed athlete who could afford high-priced, expert counsel—for a charge that might end up as a misdemeanor. We hate to think of justice as a business decision. But when DAs consider whether and how to pursue a case, neither their staffs nor budgets are bottomless. Cynical and sad; but true.

Anyway, Zverev can blame the media and deny the victim’s claims. But I would submit that, most critically, he had been failed by his tour. Depriving HIM of an independent investigation did the player a disservice. We think of these policies as a tool/resource for victims. But they are really a tool/resource for getting at the truth.

So Monday’s announcement—troublingly late as it was—gives us, at least potentially, a path forward. Zverev might end up in a worse place. A finding adverse to him? It would result in even more reputational damage. It would almost certainly result in a suspension. It will follow him for the rest of his career.

On the other hand, an independent investigation might provide Zverev with something resembling a defense: (“I gave them my phone, my passwords, access to my email and bank records. I answered every question posed. I made my coaches and team available. Anything in service of the truth. And the independent investigators were not able to corroborate the allegations. I condemn domestic violence in the strongest terms. But as for my own guilt, don’t take my word for it. Read the independent report.”)

Before Monday, we were left with this discomfort, this taint, that wasn’t fading. Those believing the accuser considered Zverev a bad actor, and were uneasy, at best, watching him play. Some media members declined to broadcast his matches. Some players expressed skepticism at his denials. Fans maligned the ATP and the events that paid him an appearance fee.

His supporters claimed he was denied due process and convicted without a trial. He lost fans and endorsements based on an account that wasn’t subject to cross-examination.

An independent investigation is not a legal proceeding. There won’t be subpoena power. A conclusion won’t, legally, mean guilt or innocence. But at least there will be an attempt to accumulate more facts and more truth. And at least the ATP has taken a step to break this stalemate.

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I am very impressed by Jannik Sinner and just saw that he won a tournament last weekend. Do you think he has what it takes to win a major?
Name misplaced

• Does Javier Palenque have issues with the USTA?* Do rental car companies have irrational attachments to dot-matrix printers? Do Canadians apologize? Yes, Sinner can win majors. Maybe not tomorrow. Maybe not in 2022. But yes. A little extra seasoning is still the missing ingredient—he’s only 20, let’s not forget. But it’s all there. The easy power. The versatility. The solid, solid ground game. There’s also this alignment of maturity/perspective/optimism. So much to like here.

*Javier Palenque is to the USTA what Ralph Nader was to automotive safety—a gadfly, a consumer advocate, a thorn in the side of a powerful industry. I don’t always agree with his tactics, his tone, his targets. But his passion is undeniable, he does his homework and his data doesn’t lie. Here’s a typical piece, this from last week. He’s well worth a follow.

Sad to read that you are OK with the distribution of expensive seats at the Laver Cup. As a Boston-area Professor I could not afford multiple tickets last weekend. I’m also against student loans that cripple my students’ futures even though, as you wrote, it is “the market rate.”
@rleightierney

• Again, a few of you wrote in, complaining about the price of tickets. Yes, it’s a disappointment that so many fans were priced out. Yes, it would be nice if X percent of seats were earmarked to be sold under market rate to true fans or to kids or to tennis players. But this is capitalism in miniature. The Laver Cup has investors, not least the USTA and Tennis Australia. There’s a duty to them. The Laver Cup has labor and rent and operating costs. It is still a baby and looking to grow. I’m not sure it can be called upon to distort market forces and fail to optimize its revenue any more than we can call, say, Jeff Koons to reduce his prices so more people can have a tacky purple balloon dog in their homes. On a happier economic note …

I thought you might appreciate hearing about my experience this week at the new ATP Tour San Diego Open. Not everyone can appreciate how incredible it's been. On Tuesday evening I got to watch Andy Murray play against Denis Kudla. Andy was scheduled to play Kei Nishikori, who withdrew a couple of hours before the first round, and the tournament called lucky loser Kudla who was driving to L.A. to come back and play Murray. After that match we watched Diego Schwartzman play Federico Gaio. Tonight, I'm going again to see Murray play Casper Ruud, followed by Grigor Dmitrov vs. Felix Auger-Aliassime.

Jon, this is a level 250 event, my tickets are $65 and I'm in a white folding chair in the third row at a community tennis center, about 18 feet from the players, on a warm San Diego fall evening. What a world!!!!
Mary Mansfield, Del Mar

• There was something meta about these fill-in events. They’ve been like lucky losers (an unfortunate term, to be sure) who take advantage of fluky circumstances and make the most of opportunity. San Diego, Chicago and others have not just held events but really embraced the challenge, adding lovely touches. Because of the circumstances, the prices have been affordable for fans. The players have helped with the atmosphere as well. As the ATP reassesses the calendar and both quality/quantity/distribution of tournaments as part of its strategic plan, you’d like to think some of these events have qualified, so to speak, for full-time status on the calendar.

Concerning the underhand serve: At Wimbledon one year, Ilie Năstase was standing very deep to return Roscoe Tanner's first serve. So Tanner began hitting a heavy topspin serve very shallow in the court, similar to his second serve, but barely clearing the net. It worked well, leaving Nastase lunging forward to return it. I don't remember if he moved forward as the match moved on, but Tanner won the match.
Jim Bartle

• I had not heard that. I wrote about Tanner at length more than few years ago; that remains one of the stranger, sadder stories I’ve covered. (Note to self: It probably calls for a revisit.) I recall one story about Tanner serving so hard that a let-cord snapped the cable. (With an elephant gun of a serve like that, he’s the last person you’d might expect to see going underhand.)

Is it time to fire the McEnroes as Team World coaches, and get a different strategy than they have been trying these first four editions? 0-4 isn’t acceptable. Maybe it’s time for Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl, Jim Courier, Lleyton Hewitt or Brad Gilbert? Or all of them? They don’t keep the same Ryder Cup coaches every time, especially if their team gets hammered.
Dave H.

• If you ever needed proof that the Laver Cup was NOT a hit-and-giggle, look at the scores. One team going 4–0 and then running up the score 14–1 is a great counterweight to any suggestion that this is entertainment, not competition. (For the record: The unspoken agreement at the conventional exos entails the players swapping sets and then playing a third set in earnest. Or 75% earnest.)

On the other hand, yes, as a few of you note, if this is honest competition, you’d think there would be a coaching change after years of relentless losing and a 1–14 shellacking. If this were John McEnroe’s beloved New York Knicks, what would he say about a coach with a comparable track record?

You would lose something without the McEnroe/Borg dynamic. And again, this interweaving of eras and tennis history is part of the appeal. But you can’t be all things to all people. An ATP event without points or prize money or standard entry procedure. A celebration of history without women. A “Europe vs. the world” event when the distinction is irrelevant 51 weeks a year. A tribute to the Big Three when none play.

I can’t stress this enough. The Laver Cup is a net positive. It adds to the tennis calendar. Tennis needs more events like this, not fewer. Inasmuch as it ate Davis Cup’s lunch, if it broke Davis Cup’s lazy monopoly, great. This is what competition looks like. But Laver Cup is at a point where it needs to ask—and answer—some existential questions.


Patrick Coony of Escondido, Calif., take us out …

• Fabulous U.S. Open this year! On my local courts everyone was talking about it. But this interest in spectator tennis suddenly dies until the next Grand Slam. Although the top players already are well compensated, revenues are only a fraction of what they could be. Potentially tennis could be second only to soccer (your other sport) in international fan interest and that interest could be yearlong. Here is a link to my analysis.

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