By Josefina Gurevich and Shravya Pant
There’s a certain type of innocence that comes with being a fan; you assume that the person, team, or sport you love is perfect. When the two of us, Josefina and Shravya, first became friends and started bonding over our shared love of tennis, we, too, were full of this innocence. In our view, the world of professional tennis was without flaw, inclusive to men and women, a champion of equal pay, and leading the sports industry with its history of activism. We were excited to share this wide-eyed love for the sport and voice that excitement in our podcast’s coverage of the latest tennis news on and off the court. In our tennis fan infancy, never did we suspect the dark underbelly of tennis.
The past year or so has exposed some of tennis’ deepest flaws, particularly on the ATP’s side. Tennis is a sport that consistently portrays itself as an advocate for gender equality, which can be credited to the Original 9’s trailblazing activism, and recently has even emphasized unity between the ATP and WTA through the “Tennis United” marketing merger. But don’t let this all fool you. To put it bluntly, the ATP has made it clear that it holds zero regard for women. As multiple active ATP players facing domestic abuse allegations from ex-female partners remain unscathed and the organization refuses to take action on the Peng Shuai situation (so much for “Tennis United”), the men’s tennis tour has served a devastating blow. Watching the organization remain unmoved by the testimonies of Olya Sharypova and Neli Dorokashvili and prioritize business in China over standing up for Peng was a necessary reality check to our innocent tennis fandom. No matter how much we love the sport, its social flaws, particularly within the ATP, are indefensible.
Domestic Violence Allegations
In November of 2020, the story of Olya Sharypova’s domestic violence allegations against Alexander Zverev took the tennis world by storm. The two of us were shocked to see this, just a couple months after we had watched his roller-coaster US Open men’s singles final match together on Zoom. “Olya’s Story,” New York Times tennis journalist Ben Rothenberg’s harrowing interview with Sharypova, was published in Racquet Magazine on November 5. Sharypova detailed the abuse she endured during her and Zverev’s relationship, including specific events at the 2019 US Open and Laver Cup. Zverev later came out and denied all allegations while the ATP remained silent; the German lost none of his sponsorships. Sharypova’s (who decided not to press charges against Zverev as speaking out about her experiences was her main goal) testimony held little significance in the eyes of the ATP, Zverev’s sponsors, and the structures of misogyny engrained in the tennis world.
But tennis fans didn’t remain silent; the hashtag “#IStandWithOlya” emerged and eventually the story reached the mainstream, particularly during Zverev’s run at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The second part of Rothenberg’s interview with Sharypova was published in Slate Magazine in August, just prior to the US Open, which discussed further instances of abuse Olya experienced following the 2019 US Open, substantiated by photos and screenshots of text messages. Four days before this article was published, the ATP (which had been inquiring about the release date of Rothenberg’s second article) stated that it would be doing a review of its “safeguarding” policies, including those surrounding domestic abuse. As a result of this “independent safeguarding report,” the ATP announced an internal investigation into the 2019 Shanghai Rolex Masters domestic violence incident Sharypova described in the Slate piece. While a crucial step, it took 11 months from Sharypova’s initial interview for the ATP to take any meaningful action. And since October 4th, the ATP has released no further information, calling into question the nature and integrity of the investigation.
What makes the ATP’s attitude towards this incident even more disappointing is that Zverev is not the only one of their players to face allegations like this. Brazilian player Thiago Seyboth Wild is currently being investigated by police in Brazil after his girlfriend, Thayane Lima, accused him of physical and emotional abuse. In June of 2020, this year’s Indian Wells finalist Nikoloz Basilashvili’s ex-wife, Neli Dorokashvili, charged him with domestic violence. The Georgian athlete was arrested but then released on bail. Considering Basilashvili’s celebrity status in Georgia and the ATP’s pattern of silence, he faced no significant repercussions, certainly none within the tennis world.
The ATP needs to seriously look into their environment and rules and take action against these players. Belated investigations and reviews of “safeguarding” policies are reactive moves; the organization needs to examine how it can proactively change its culture, a culture that clearly does nothing to protect the women involved in ATP players’ lives. With their track record even from just this year, it’s clear that the ATP does all it can to protect these male athletes while paying no heed to women, and this pattern extends to issues beyond domestic violence, as well.
“There is nothing more important to us than the safety of our tennis community. We have been deeply concerned by the uncertainty surrounding the immediate safety and whereabouts of WTA player Peng Shuai,” said ATP chairman Andrea Gaudenzi, regarding the Peng Shuai situation on November 15, 2021. While the statement may seem benevolent, since, the ATP has failed to step up and take action for their words.
People far past the ‘tennis world’ have felt the impact of Peng’s story in recent months. She was the first Chinese tennis player to achieve the No.1 ranking spot in doubles. She holds two Grand Slam doubles titles and is a former top 20 player in singles. She was a star athlete and a prized athlete of China. On November 2, Peng posted on Weibo (a Chinese social-media site) accusing retired Vice Premier of the Chinese Communist Party, Zhang Gaoli, of sexually assualting her. The post was deleted shortly after, but not before gaining international traction. Following this event, Peng was not heard from for several weeks, causing panic as to the safety of her whereabouts. Slowly, she started making appearances in public media again, but with a concerning outlook on her previous statement. Ever since she posted the allegation on Weibo, she has denied it. It is clear that Peng is not intentionally denying her past claims, but has instead been forced to succumb to a position of contradiction at the risk of sacrificing her safety.
Whether or not Peng is currently safe is not clear whatsoever, so governing bodies of tennis, or even athletics in general, still have the duty to stand up for human rights in her name. Recently, the WTA’s chairman, Steve Simon, made the ultimate decision to suspend all WTA tournaments in China in Peng’s name; note that the WTA, and tennis world on a larger level, has significant financial stake in China, with the WTA Finals and several Masters tournaments set in the country. Previously, Simon had demanded the ability to communicate privately with Peng and for Chinese officials to conduct a transparent investigation into her disappearance, however neither were complied with. He accompanied the announcement of the suspension with, “In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault.” Simon’s decision is arguably the most powerful stance taken by any leader of sports organizations, regarding not only players’ rights, but human rights as well.
Unfortunately, in comparison, we’ve also seen some weak takes, especially from fellow professional tennis governing bodies. The ITF has refused to pull their tournaments from China, stating they “don’t want to disappoint 1.4 billion people.” The ATP took a similar stance, saying, “having a global presence gives us the best chance of making an impact.” However, when presented with a situation to support the efforts of “Tennis United,” the ATP failed to act. Their reaction (and lack of action) was extremely disappointing, and they have been rightfully criticized for it. The worst part is that we half-expected this from the ATP considering their previous stances on issues of violence against women. Even when the entire world, past just tennis enthusiasts, has united to support efforts in ensuring Peng Shuai’s safety, the ATP has failed to stand up for basic human rights for a player that is part of their “Tennis United” community.
The ATP is one of the largest global governing bodies of professional tennis. They claim that their “mission is to serve tennis,” and “inspire the next generation of fans and players.” Yet, they have neglected countless opportunities to uphold the principles on which they claim to stand.
Not only are we tennis fans, we are young, female tennis fans and our podcast has given us keen insight to the ATP’s true colors. We’ve had to report the ATP failing to stand up for women being assaulted and harmed by players of their own organization. We’ve had to report the ATP failing to stand up for a woman being silenced and censored. So what’s the message here to female tennis fans like us? Women’s basic rights as human-beings mean nothing to one of the most powerful organizations in our sport? While this may not be the message the ATP sends with their words, it is certainly the message we’ve received through their actions. Until we see a change, we will continue to hold the ATP accountable for their lack of human interest.
Josefina and Shravya are the co-hosts of Hold On to Your Racket, the podcast for Gen Z tennis fans. We hope you liked this article. If you’d like to hear more from us, check out our podcast! You can follow us on Twitter @HOTYR_TennisPod.