Opinion | Tennis needs to take a stand on domestic violence accusations

Opinion | Tennis needs to take a stand on domestic violence accusations

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Ashish Malhotra is a freelance journalist based in New York.

The recent success of Australian tennis star Nick Kyrgios — who this week is playing at the Citi Open in D.C., as one of its marquee names — has highlighted a troubling state of affairs in men’s tennis: the inability, or unwillingness, of its governing bodies and the mainstream tennis media to adequately address accusations of domestic violence.

Kyrgios’s dazzling play and volatile on-court outbursts have for years drawn torrents of attention from fans and critics, most recently in the Wimbledon final. Yet what spectators might not know is that before his Wimbledon quarterfinal, allegations emerged that he had assaulted an ex-girlfriend; he has a court date for the case in Australia this month. (His lawyer has said Kyrgios “takes the allegation very seriously.”)

Kyrgios isn’t the only figure on the tour embroiled in legal proceedings. Two lesser-known players, Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia and Thiago Seyboth Wild of Brazil, have been accused of physical abuse against ex-partners. (Both have denied the allegations.)

But perhaps the most high-profile player caught up in scandal is Germany’s Alexander Zverev, who has been ranked as high as No. 2 in the world.

When Zverev won gold at last summer’s Olympic Games, some tennis fans squirmed. In late 2020, Zverev had been accused of domestic violence by an ex-girlfriend, allegations vividly described by journalist Ben Rothenberg for Racquet magazine and Slate. (Zverev has said he is innocent.)

All these players deserve due process. But the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), which runs the men’s tour, has shown a disturbing lack of urgency in addressing the accusations — raising questions about how seriously it takes domestic violence.

The ATP has no clear policy describing what should happen when players face accusations. It took the organization over a year to open an investigation into Zverev; the situation remains unresolved. Last month, the ATP issued a statement on Kyrgios to Reuters, saying it was aware of the case against him but that it “would be inappropriate to comment further” with legal proceedings ongoing.

That might be prudent. But such tiptoeing sends an ugly message about the priorities of the people atop men’s tennis, who come off as more concerned about the sport’s image than about the responsibility to quickly respond to worrying claims. And it means elite players accused of misconduct continue to be unabashedly promoted by the sport — and keep taking to the court.

And much of the tennis media plays along.

In the immediate lead-up to Kyrgios’s Wimbledon quarterfinal on ESPN2, the main ESPN channel aired a tone-deaf segment promoting his infamous antics — smashing rackets, verbally abusing umpires and his “team” — then cut to commentators laughing about them. Other ESPN analysts called Kyrgios a “character” who was “good for tennis” and went so far as to say that everything in his personal life “seems good.”

The coverage echoed much of that surrounding Zverev. During his first four matches at last year’s U.S. Open, ESPN made no mention of domestic violence allegations. It finally aired a segment on the accusations the day of Zverev’s quarterfinal; once the match began, the issue was ignored. A journalist interviewing Zverev for the German outlet Bild took it upon himself to call the accusations “nonsense.

To some — though not nearly enough — commentators, this is unacceptable.

Catherine Whitaker, a co-host of “The Tennis Podcast,” has said “we should all feel uncomfortable” watching Zverev play, and has lamented the failure of people in the tennis world to even say “the simple words ‘domestic violence is wrong.’ ”

“That’s not hard,” Whitaker said. But “we’re so rarely hearing it because everybody would rather it went away.”

One of the few to take a stand is Mary Carillo, who last year quit her role as a commentator for the Laver Cup tournament, which Zverev was playing in, because of the event’s unwillingness to address the domestic violence questions.

“I don’t want to be a part of the silence,” Carillo told the “Behind the Racquet” tennis podcast. “If you’re quiet, it suggests you’re complicit.”

Tennis could and should do much more to show it isn’t complicit.

Broadcasters could offer better context about a player’s off-court issues and ditch the lighthearted interviews with players accused of domestic violence.

And the ATP could send a strong message about its values by creating a proper code of conduct. Organizations such as the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and the National Football League finally have such codes. Although in some cases they have fallen short, they have also impelled officials to act: Just this year, after its own investigation, the MLB suspended Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer for 324 games because of sexual assault allegations, even though the Los Angeles County district attorney did not pursue charges. (Bauer has denied the allegations and is appealing the league’s decision.)

Tennis continues to tread lightly. But fans, including those watching the Citi Open, deserve to know more about the men they’re cheering. Tennis fancies itself a classy sport. Its evasions are a shame.

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