Alexander Zverev’s Upcoming Trial Looms Over His Recent Success

One shot at this past Australian Open saved the ATP from a lot of scrutiny. Down two sets and returning serve at 5-5 in the third-set tiebreak of his semifinal, Daniil Medvedev mishit a forehand return and it dribbled over the net. The semi-accidental, untouchable drop shot turned the course of the match: Medvedev took that tiebreak and won in five sets, preventing his opponent, Alexander Zverev, from reaching a major final.

Zverev, currently the world No. 6, has been accused of intimate-partner violence by two women. One case resulted in no legal charges; the tour said after an independent investigation that there wasn’t enough evidence to substantiate the allegations. The other is at the root of ongoing legal proceedings in his home country of Germany, with a penalty order issued in October 2023 and a trial scheduled to begin in Berlin this May. As he plays his best tennis since his severe ankle injury in 2022, Zverev occupies a queasy space on the tour, with his allegations highlighted or disappeared as various parties see fit. While tennis has plenty of rules about what words can be uttered in between points, or how respectfully rackets must be treated, it has very little to say about off-court behavior.

Since the allegations first became public in 2020, and throughout the ATP’s own investigation, Zverev has continued to play at tour events as his health has allowed. This January, the tour announced that fellow players had elected Zverev to a two-year term as a representative to the Player Advisory Council, which makes recommendations to ATP leadership—the same leadership that theoretically would make a decision about his fitness to play, under the clause in the rulebook dealing with “conduct contrary to the integrity of the game.” In the early days of press availability at the Australian Open, reporters asked players on both tours about this latest development. The responses varied, but tended to be more pointed on the WTA side.

“I think this is a matter that I think everyone needs to sit down together and discuss all of that,” fellow council member Grigor Dimitrov said, sidestepping the question much like the other male players. “For sure, it’s not good when a player who’s facing charges like that is kind of being promoted,” women’s No. 1 Iga Swiatek said. “Yeah, they do what they do on that side,” Sloane Stephens said. “Would that happen on the WTA Tour? Probably not.”

When asked before the Australian Open whether it was appropriate for him to serve in a leadership position or play tennis while the case was ongoing, Zverev said that none of his peers had ever told him otherwise; only the media had. “Like who?” he said. “Journalists are saying that—some, who are actually interested more in this story to write about and more about the clicks than the actual truth.”

Zverev played well throughout the tournament, turning him into an unavoidable presence. He upset Carlos Alcaraz in the quarterfinal with a serving masterclass, setting up the semifinal against Medvedev. Before the match, ESPN, which has exclusive rights to the tournament in the U.S., displayed an infographic about the ongoing legal case, as broadcaster Chris Fowler read off the bullet points. On the other end of the spectrum, the Netflix series Break Point released a batch of new episodes in January, including one in which Zverev is presented as the uncomplicated protagonist of an injury comeback story, with no reference to these allegations. Instead, the episode follows his recovery from the ankle injury suffered during his 2022 French Open semifinal against Rafael Nadal, which tore three ligaments and left him sobbing on the court.

The earlier allegations of intimate-partner violence were reported by tennis journalist Ben Rothenberg in November 2020, following interviews with Zverev’s former partner Olga Sharypova, who described a pattern of emotional and physical abuse over the course of her relationship with Zverev in 2018 and 2019. According to Sharypova, Zverev hit her head against a wall and sat on a pillow he’d placed over her face; she did not press charges. In October 2021, the ATP announced an independent investigation into the allegations, to be conducted by a third-party consultant, The Lake Forest Group. During the process, Zverev continued to compete in tour events as usual. In January 2023, over two years after the announcement of the investigation, the ATP said in a statement that there was “insufficient evidence to substantiate published allegations of abuse,” and there would be no disciplinary action against Zverev.

After Sharypova’s allegations went public but before the ATP launched its investigation, Zverev was the runner-up at the Paris Masters. “I know that there is going to be a lot of people that right now are trying to wipe a smile off my face,” he said during his acceptance speech. “But under this mask I’m smiling brightly. I feel incredible on court, I have the people that I love around me. I am probably going to be a father very soon, so everything is great in my life. The people who are trying can keep trying, but I’m still smiling under this mask even though you can’t see.”

The allegations headed to trial came from Brenda Patea, who was in a relationship with Zverev for parts of 2019 and 2020, and gave birth to his daughter in 2021. The German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung interviewed Patea in 2023 and cited court filings in which she described being pushed against the wall and choked. (That article is not currently available, but an archived version can be read here.) This past October, a district court in Tiergarten issued a penalty order against Zverev for bodily harm, plus a fine of 450,000 euros. He filed an objection to that order, and a public trial will begin on May 31 in Berlin and continue in non-consecutive days throughout June and July. Because Zverev does not have to appear in person for the trial, he will likely continue his usual tour schedule on clay and grass courts.

In response to Patea’s allegations, Zverev has denied all wrongdoing but remained more oblique in his remarks. After his loss to Medvedev at the Australian Open, Zverev was asked if the ongoing case affected his concentration on court. “I have said it before: Anyone who has a semi-decent IQ level understands what’s going on,” he said. “I hope that most of you guys do. I’m fine with it.” That was nearly a word-for-word echo of what he said in Paris in November, shortly after the penalty order was issued. If Zverev intends to unpack that insinuation some day, he is saving those words for after the trial.

Major American sports leagues have domestic-violence policies written into collectively bargained agreements. The ATP—which itself is just one of several bodies that govern pro tennis—is a collection of independent contractors from all over the world, whose behavior is governed only by a handbook with the most general guidance about off-court conduct. (A relatively new players union has yet to make much of a mark.) The ATP’s unspoken policy seems to be to defer all judgment to local law enforcement. Maybe it prefers this deliberately hands-off approach to scrutinizing the behavior of its players across the entire world’s legal jurisdictions, but that preference can create a scenario where a major semifinal match is headlined with a series of bullet points about German legal procedure. Every success of one of its top players has to be packaged with constant caveats and clarification.

Judging by how long it took to reach a conclusion in the investigation of Sharypova’s allegations against Zverev, the ATP is sluggish to respond to public pressure, even if it eventually does act to protect itself. And it makes its own inquiry without compromising its other business efforts, such as marketing Zverev heavily ahead of tournaments, which it has continued to do all along, even after the penalty order. This week Zverev was featured in a poster promoting the upcoming Laver Cup, an exhibition event officially sanctioned by the ATP.

Perhaps no player has articulated the situation, in all its murky non-resolution and deferred judgment, as well as Sloane Stephens did in Australian Open press. She seemed to think that a concrete legal ruling could provide clarity and determine an appropriate response from the ATP. That feels overly optimistic, but as she pointed out, the tour’s response to Zverev has already dragged on across multiple seasons. “For three years no one’s done anything, so I don’t think another five months of waiting for a criminal trial to happen is going to change much on either side,” Stephens said.

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