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Alexander Zverev took the podium for his pre-U.S. Open news conference and cracked a joke about seeing reporters in person rather than through Zoom. He spent the next several minutes talking about the best month of his tennis career, what it will take to usurp No. 1 Novak Djokovic in a Grand Slam and even answered a question about his dogs.
But the scrutiny Zverev will be under for the next two weeks and beyond has little to do with his tennis. And the only significant thing that came out of his mouth Friday was a lie.
On the heels of a story in Slate this week that detailed harrowing allegations of domestic abuse made publicly by his ex-girlfriend Olya Sharypova — some of which were new, others she had discussed previously — Zverev didn’t merely deny them as he had done in the past. This time, the world’s No. 4-ranked tennis player stood up in front of the media and claimed he had been exonerated in a court of law — even though there’s been no trial, no investigation and no clarification about what court he’s even talking about.
“I’ve always said that the allegations and everything that has been said is untrue, and the courts confirmed that so there’s nothing else to say from my side,” said Zverev, who won the men’s singles gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics last month. “Because as I said, the court confirmed that it’s untrue and there’s nothing more I can say toward that.”
If Zverev’s goal was to end the conversation around the serious, specific and credible allegations against him, he failed miserably. If anything, his misleading declaration of victory only makes the cloud of suspicion around him that much larger.
In an era where it’s mandatory for professional sports organizations to have well-defined procedures for how to handle allegations of domestic violence or sexual abuse, the allegations against Zverev have left tennis leaders looking weak and ill-prepared. Their only apparent strategy was to hope the story faded away.
Instead, the ATP Tour’s inaction has turned a festering issue that only hard-core tennis fans knew about into a full-blown scandal on the eve of the U.S. Open, finally forcing a confrontation that will swirl around Zverev for a long time to come.
But where it ultimately leads is unclear, largely because of the ATP’s nebulous policies, Sharypova’s decision not to press charges against Zverev and a series of potential legal proceedings that could play out in multiple countries.
Earlier Friday, Zverev indicated in a statement posted to Twitter that he planned to pursue legal action against both Sharypova and Ben Rothenberg, who reported the allegations based on interviews with Sharypova and contemporaneous text messages with friends she had told about the abuse. A statement from Slate on Friday said it had been informed Zverev started legal proceedings in Germany against the publication.
But Zverev’s contention that he had “obtained a preliminary injunction against the source and the author who published the false allegations” does not mean his name has been cleared or that the allegations are defamatory, as he had claimed.
In fact, when asked Friday to provide specifics about what the courts confirmed, Zverev refused to answer beyond, “The court confirmed it. There’s nothing else I can say.”
The allegations, as detailed in the Slate piece, are horrifying. Sharypova, a former tennis player who had known Zverev since they were teenagers, recalled multiple alleged incidents of abuse while traveling with him at various tournaments in 2019 — including at the U.S. Open where she says he smothered her with a pillow to the point she couldn’t breathe.
In another instance, at a tournament later that year in Shanghai, she says that he pushed her up against the wall of the hotel bathroom and punched her. Photos of Zverev after his match on the day of that allegation show red marks on his neck, which she told Slate were the product of a physical struggle against him.
After Sharypova’s abuse allegations initially came out in November in Racquet Magazine, Zverev issued a blanket denial. And because Sharypova said she had no interest in criminal or civil charges against Zverev, it didn’t seem like anyone around tennis had much interest in a full-scale investigation.
Behind the scenes, there was some fallout as Zverev split with Team8, the management company owned in part by Roger Federer.
But until the Olympics, when NBC announcers Mary Carillo and Darren Cahill brought it up on the air during a Zverev match, the allegations had been an elephant in the room that nobody really wanted to address.
Now it’s clear that doing and saying nothing is no longer an option. The ATP has to figure out a better way to address allegations of domestic violence, even if there’s no criminal case to rely on — both for the benefit of victims and the due process of players. Even Zverev said for six months he has urged the ATP to investigate the claims.
“I also fully support the creation of an ATP domestic violence policy,” he said.
The nature of the tennis tour makes some these issues more complicated. Unlike the NFL, the NBA or other leagues, tennis players don’t work for a team. They’re independent contractors who earn prize money by playing in tournaments, which themselves are individual licensees under ATP governance. The Grand Slams are separate entities entirely.
But the Zverev issue has created a critical mass both from inside and outside the tour to come up with a process that ensures domestic violence allegations aren’t just swept aside out of convenience simply because no criminal case has been filed. Prominent players such as Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have come out publicly in favor of a clear policy on domestic abuse allegations.
“That is something we as a sport should be looking into, so the ATP know what to do in that situation, rather than having to think and react to it,” Murray said last year. “They can be a bit more proactive in a situation like that.”
In the meantime, Zverev enters the U.S. Open as arguably the hottest player in the world, having won 11 matches in a row. But when he suggested Friday that this controversy was over because some unspecified court said so, his streak of telling the truth went immediately to zero.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Open: Alexander Zverev invites more scrutiny over alleged abuse