For eleven months, a deeply unsettling situation has been simmering below the surface.
Alexander Zverev, the Olympic gold medalist, 2021 US Open semifinalist, Laver Cup standout and No. 4 player in the world has been soaring on court. He’s been charismatic, funny and outright charming in interviews. But, all the while, there’s been a troubling and dispiriting elephant in the room.
Two lengthy articles by Ben Rothenberg were published in which Zverev’s former girlfriend, Russian Olga Sharypova, alleged extensive domestic abuse by Sascha.
The response of officials and the media was suggestive of the response to Justin Gimelstob’s violent brawl in LA, an incident in 2018 that, outside of this publication and the London Telegraph, drew relatively little attention until Stan Wawrinka issued a Statement of Conscience to The Times of London.
With the Zverev case, the ATP at first said that it would wait for any legal developments before it acted. Then, under pressure, they began to examine their policies on domestic abuse, which are weaker than those of other sports. They established an independent commission and issued a statement saying, “When abusive conduct or allegations are related to any member of the tennis family it can also impact the public’s trust in our sport. We recognize that we have a responsibility to be doing more.” Zverev himself endorsed the initiative.
But, just prior to the Laver Cup, the courageous, widely celebrated Mary Carillo had had enough of what she felt was a whitewash. In the past, she’d been hired to host the Laver Cup’s star-studded feel-good black tie gala and to be one of the event’s lead broadcasters.
Laver Cup officials hadn’t asked her not to address the issue, but she sensed that Zverev would be front and center in Boston, and she just didn’t want to be part of it all, on air or behind the scenes. She resigned from her multifaceted Laver Cup job.
On the Behind the Racquet podcast, Mary said, “In the end I just felt like I’d be complicit in the whitewashing of very serious allegations.” She added, “I couldn’t be part of it.”
Tuesday night, after Andy Murray’s impressive San Diego Open win over Denis Kudla, Inside Tennis had the following exchange with the three-time Slam winner, former No. 1 and two-time gold medalist who has often spoken out on social issues.
INSIDE TENNIS: A lot of people feel that you are, to some extent, the conscience of our sport, sort of in the tradition of [Arthur] Ashe or Billie Jean. You’ve really spoken out courageously. And there’s sort of an elephant in the room with our No. 4 player – some really serious accusations about his behavior – and some would say that they’re credible. He made a statement about it and there have been some legal elements to it, but it’s still been there in the background, time and again, and certainly at the Laver Cup, even on court [where Reilly Opelka and John McEnroe, in the heat of battle, made sarcastic quips relating to Zverev’s claims of innocence]. And Mary Carillo resigned. Do you have any thoughts about this issue? Do you think there should be some kind of investigation? Do you think Sascha should speak out? What are your feelings about this?
ANDY MURRAY: I spoke a little bit about it at Wimbledon. I also got asked about it a few months before that…My feeling is still that, you know, the tour…needs to…be more proactive in dealing with situations like that, or allegations like that, because…The way that it’s [been] handled hasn’t been good for anyone. I don’t think it’s been great for the tour. I don’t think it’s been great for Zverev, because you know, unless it gets addressed head-on, it’s just going to be lingering, and, like you say, the questions will continue to be getting asked. Like, I spoke about it at Wimbledon, and now here, what is it, three months later, and I’m still getting asked about it.
So, obviously, it’s not been properly addressed, and until that happens, then players are going to continue to get asked about it. The broadcasters are invariably going to be talking about it. So…I don’t know what advice Zverev will be getting…and I don’t know how you should handle that if you are in that situation or in that position. It’s difficult, but, certainly, it’s been going on too long…It needs to get resolved, clearly.
INSIDE TENNIS: In America there’s sometimes a tradition of forgiveness…[for example] the situation with Kobe and his early legal problems. Do you think…Sascha should just come out and just tell his truth, [and] tell us exactly what happened and maybe comment whether it was a mistake or not…?
ANDY MURRAY: I think obviously…you need to draw a line under it one way or another until it’s properly addressed. But that’s not going to happen. So I certainly would recommend that he goes down whatever route there is to try and get to the bottom of it finally, so everyone can move on, because I…don’t want to be sitting here after winning a tennis match talking about stuff like that.
INSIDE TENNIS: Of course.
ANDY MURRAY: I want to be playing tennis, that’s what I want to be doing. I’m happiest at winning. But…I’ve been asked about it regularly. I don’t know how many other players have been asked about it…I also don’t feel like we should be in that position. It’s been going on a long time.
In November 2020, writer Ben Rothenberg published an investigative piece in Racquet Magazine that included allegations that Zverev had supposedly physically abused and battered his then girlfriend Olga Sharypova.
The Russian claimed that in their New York hotel room during the 2019 US Open she’d been attacked and Zverev had sat on a pillow on her head. In their coverage of Rothenberg’s article, the Guardian noted that Olga had offered the writer “a harrowing account of the violence she said escalated from Zverev hitting her head into the wall to pushing, choking and punching her in the face. After one such encounter in Geneva, she said that she injected herself with insulin in a suicide attempt. ‘I didn’t want to live any more,’ she said.”
Zverev emphatically denied Sharypova’s accusations. In a statement he asserted her comments were “simply not true” and “unfounded.” He read a statement at a tournament press conference that said, “We had our ups and downs, but the way our relationship was described in the public is not how it was. That’s not who I am, that’s not how I was raised by my parents. That’s not just simply who I am as a person. It makes me sad that the impact of such false accusations can have on the sport, on the outside world, on myself as well. I truly apologize that the focus has shifted away from the sport. We all love playing tennis, that’s what we’re here to do.”
Then, on August 25, just before the 2021 US Open, Rothenberg followed up with a piece in Slate entitled, “Every Day I Was Crying,” with more allegations and disturbing photos.
Zverev again issued emphatic denials and, in the German court system, began legal initiatives directed at Rothenberg and others that gained significant traction. Zverev issued another statement: “I have engaged my German and American lawyers in the matter. They have already obtained a preliminary injunction against the source and the author who published the false allegations. The court followed our arguments and stated the accusations…are defamatory and false. The lawyers, therefore, initiated further proceedings against the source and the author. I categorically and unequivocally deny having abused Olga…I will not address this matter any further.”
Others stated that Rothenberg did not have legal representation in the German court and disputed Zverev’s interpretation.
All the while, Sasha excelled on court. Olga, who now has a corporate job, has not sought financial damages and says she will not file charges. In an Instagram message she posted and then deleted, she said she wasn’t afraid of Sascha or his legal team and asserted, “I said the truth and you’re going to court to try to win it with a lie?”
Over the years attitudes towards the problematic behavior of athletes have evolved. For decades, fans essentially ignored the womanizing of superstars from Babe Ruth to Muhammad Ali. After being ruled innocent in a rape trial, Kobe Bryant tapped into America’s penchant for redemption, and the Laker became a beloved icon. Some sports now have more stringent rules that address domestic violence.
There is one thing that’s clear about the fate of Alexander the great – or not so great: it’s far from being determined.
Rothenberg noted that after Zverev won in Madrid in May, British broadcaster Catherine Whitaker reflected on her unease with the “inertia of the situation.” On the Tennis Podcast she said, “His tennis was brilliant…but on a personal level, do I find joy in watching it? No, I don’t. It’s an extremely uncomfortable place to be in…We’re sort of waiting for some sort of – not resolution, but progress, or action, or something.”
We still are – stay tuned.