November 25, 2020

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Analysis: Alexander Zverev has a problem – well, two problems

Zverev at Roland Garros in September. (Stephanie Myles/Opencourt.ca)

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Alexander Zverev is a talented, handsome, multilingual, extremely wealthy professional tennis player who has been custom-designed since his youth to be a “superstar-in-waiting” as the Big Three era winds down.

He can be charming and charismatic – or hubristic and dismissive. His personality works for some and turns off others, depending on what they want to see or what’s important to them in the athletes they support.

Some people don’t like him because they don’t like the way he plays tennis – fandom can be that way.

Some people were turned off by his seemingly cavalier behaviour in the wake of the this summer’s Adria Tour coronavirus mess. (His parents later both contracted it).

But right now, Alexander Zverev has a bigger problem.

Actually, he has several problems.

How he deals with them may well determine the course of a career which, at 23, has barely begun.

And the ancillary consequences are significant. Because “Alexander Zverev, tennis star” is an industry; it’s a lot more than just him.

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Alexander Zverev at Wimbledon in 2019. (Stephanie Myles/OpenCourt.ca)

Zverev is going to be a daddy

The first bombshell dropped Wednesday, when Zverev’s former girlfriend Brenda Patea announced in the German magazine Gala that she was five months pregnant with his child.

The news, obviously, spread far and wide from that original scoop.

Patea, a 27-year-old model, then began to populate her Instagram account with photos of her baby bump.

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Jedem Anfang wohnt ein Zauber inne. Dies ist mein zauberhafter Anfang mit einem neuen Leben unter meinem Herzen. 👼🏻 Ich kann kaum in Worte fassen, wie es sich für mich anfühlt, schwanger zu sein – es ist einfach nur eine überwältigende Zeit. 🤗 Mama zu werden erfüllt mich mit einer so großen Freude und doch macht es mir auch ein bisschen Angst. Diejenigen unter euch, die bereits schwanger waren, können das vermutlich nachvollziehen. 🙈 In den vergangenen Wochen gab es einige herzzerreißende und freudige Momente und dann wieder Situationen der Unsicherheit, weil mein Kind in stürmische Zeiten hineingeboren wird. Aber egal was noch auf uns zukommen wird…ich werde mein Kind lieben und beschützen, bis ans Ende meiner Tage. Ich bin schon jetzt die glücklichste Mama der Welt und ich freue mich so unbeschreiblich dieses Glück mit euch teilen zu können! Danke an alle, die mir so tolle, positive Nachrichten geschrieben haben. Ihr ahnt gar nicht, wie happy ihr mich damit macht. Ich bin zu Tränen gerührt, so viele Glückwünsche von euch bekommen zu haben und dass ihr eure Geschichten mit mir teilt, bedeutet mir sehr viel.❣️ Schön, dass es euch gibt 🥰 #kugelrundundglücklich #20ssw

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The couple had broken up, although it appears they knew about the baby when they ended things.

In the original interview, Patea said she had no contact with Zverev since the breakup, and planned to raise the child alone. Behind that may have concern about accusations that she was only after Zverev for his money, even if she has a career of her own.

Next, accusations of violence

On the heels of what was already some pretty blockbuster news for a young, single tennis star came a second bombshell the same day.

This one, unlike the baby news, had no silver lining.

Olya Sharypova, who dated Zverev before the relationship with Patea, took to her Instagram account (that’s how the kids do it these days) to tell a story.

Also 23, the Russian photographer has known Zverev since they were kids.

She played tennis as a junior, although she stopped when she was about 16.

Shocking accusations

Sharypova laid out some pretty terrifying but utterly unproven accusations of domestic violence – notably in New York during the 2019 US Open, when they were still a couple.

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МЕНЯ БИЛИ И БОЛЬШЕ НЕ БУДУ МОЛЧАТЬ. Я сейчас хочу рассказать одну очень личную и очень тяжелую для меня историю, которую я уже пережила и оставила в прошлом. Пишу я это, чтобы девушки, которые находятся или находились в такой же ситуации не чувствовали себя одинокими и нашли в себе силы жить дальше. Я была жертвой домашнего насилия! Первый раз это случилось в начале отношений, была ссора и меня ударили головой об стену с такой силой, что я села на пол. Что было дальше? Меня обвинили в том, что это я поднимаю руку.. человек, который секунду назад меня ударил стоял и кричал на меня, за что ударил не он, а я. Как это возможно? Почему я сразу не ушла? Почему простила? На эти вопросы , я правда не могу дать ответы. Я любила. Искренне любила и хотела быть с этим человеком, мне казалось , что это всего лишь ошибка, которую мы вместе исправим и оставим в прошлом. Но единственное , что стоило оставить в прошлом- это эти отношения. В августе прошлого года я побитая выбежала из гостиницы босиком. Я стояла на улице Нью-Йорка и не знала куда мне идти и что делать. Меня пытались задушить подушкой, ударили головой об стену, скручивали руки и в тот момент я действительно боялась за свою жизнь. Это была уже далеко не первая и не последняя ситуация, когда в отношениях на меня подняли руку. Она была самая страшная, потому что в какие-то моменты я не могла дышать. Честно, то время я вспоминаю с трудом, потому что тогда не было никаких красок жизни, один туман и непонимание происходящего. Я была другим человеком, верила в любовь и пыталась ее сохранить. Но люди не меняются, как показывает время. Отношения с абьюзером это сейчас не новость. Но когда ты в них находишься, тебе очень сложно из них выйти. Как из них вышла я? Это отдельная история, которую я расскажу чуть позже. Потому что я больше не буду молчать. Потому что эта тема, о которой нужно говорить. И я больше не боюсь. #янебоюсь

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Sharypova has some receipts

She posted alleged texts to friends, photos, and implied there is a lot more to tell.

(Here’s a Twitter account that has been chronicling and translating a lot of it).

There is also an interview in a Russian media outlet. Here is Part 1, and Part 2.

On Thursday, tennis writer Ben Rothenberg published an interview on the Racquet Magazine website, that he did with Sharypova last Friday.

The default is to believe

Statistics vary on the number of reported accusations of domestic violence and rape that turn out to be false. But in nearly all studies, the number is small. And that’s only the ones that are reported to authorities.

So the default is – should be – to hear someone when they’re courageous enough to come forward. To listen. No matter when it is or who it’s about.

On the flip side, presumption of innocence is a legal construct, a standard to meet in a court of law. Unfortunately, in 2020, it does not translate to the court of public opinion.

Zverev surely will relate his side of the story at some point. And he should. There are always two sides to every story. Always. And it’s true that the only two people who really know what goes on in a relationship are … those two people.

But whether Zverev’s fans – and business associates – believe Sharypova or not is only part of what this is about. The initial news always gets more attention than any subsequent clarification or walkback.

It’s also about how Zverev will handle it. And what the impact on his career might be in the #MeToo era.

An ineffective statement

It took not quite a day for Zverev to post something on his social media.

It was, by any measure, an ineffective statement.

Me, myself and I

The first three sentences include with the word “I” – and the first sentence is about how the last days were challenging … for him.

It’s short. And it lumps together an unexpected but intrinsically joyful event with some pretty heinous accusations.

It’s glib, too. The tone sends off “no big deal, just a minor annoyance in the charmed life of Alexander Zverev. It’ll all work out no prob” vibes.

While Patea appeared clear in stating the former couple had had no contact, and that she planned to raise the baby alone and not share custody (this would be up to the courts), Zverev’s take is that they have a “good relationship” and can “take care of it without the media involved.”

(The media is already involved – Patea announced the news in a magazine).

Conflicting versions

Zverev and now-ex girlfriend Olga Sharypova watch on during a tournament in Oct. 2018. (TennisTV).

As for the accusations of violence, Zverev they are “unfounded” and they “make him sad”.

He said he “doesn’t know why she is making those accusations now”, since the relationship “ended a long time ago”.

As if when the date of the end of the relationship is relevant. It is as tone deaf as it is awkward.

And given the slight grammatical errors understandable in a third language – and general tone – it appears he wrote it himself. When there is this much at stake, you … don’t do this yourself. Because these types of things can get truly ugly.

When I spoke to an agent who does not represent Zverev, the advice offered was to hire a crisis PR firm that specializes in handling – spinning – these types of things for famous people.

It’s hard to fathom any experienced PR person signing off on that statement.

(According to Rothenberg’s interview on the Racquet Magazine website, German crisis PR specialist Béla Anda has been hired).

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Zverev’s love of dogs is well known. Hopefully he’ll be just as good with babies. (Stephanie Myles/Opencourt.ca)

Online reaction split

Social media, of course, is only a small sliver of the actual universe. But the reaction has been as we’ve come to expect.

Zverev fans – and those whose attitudes towards the issue of domestic violence are virulently stuck in the 1950s – are accusing Sharypova of being a liar, a spurned woman with “no evidence”, who’s “out to get him”.

Those who don’t like him think he should be drummed out of the game. Those who are neutral, or less willing to immediately jump to conclusions, are sitting back to see how the story develops. They’re hoping it’s not true.

They’re also taking notes on which players are “liking” Zverev’s statement – thus tacitly endorsing or supporting him, at least virtually.

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Zverev and Djokovic and teams at Miami in 2018. (Stephanie Myles/OpenCourt.ca)

A lot at stake

Zverev is currently represented by Team8, the agency spearheaded by its superstar client, Roger Federer.

Federer took Zverev under his wing many years ago. He practiced with him often. And his mentorship paid off because just over a year ago, in Aug. 2019, Zverev officially signed with Team 8.

“I thought: If Roger has been with this agency for so long, it must be the best,” Zverev said when his new association became public.

Patricio Apey had managed Zverev since his very first steps in the pros. That relationship ended up in a protracted court battle before Zverev could extricate himself. It cost him much of 2019 as his mind and energy were elsewhere. And they’re still in court.

Will Federer stand behind him?

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Zverev and Federer joke during a water break at the BNP Paribas Open in 2015. (Stephanie Myles/Opencourt.ca)

But all of this puts Federer – and Team 8 – in a bind unless they can make it go away.

Through Federer’s career, there has never been a hint of off-court impropriety or drama in his personal life, or those of anyone around him. It’s an endemic part of his image and enduring appeal – an appeal that Team 8 will continue to monetize long after Federer stops playing.

The Zverev situation – however it plays out – is a little too close to home.

So it will be fascinating to see whether the 39-year-old Swiss star, whose recovery from knee surgeries has been slow but who intends to get back on tour in January, stands behind him or quietly dissociates from him.

Stepping up for your client

Team 8, as a going concern, doesn’t need this. It has invested a lot of its future into the Laver Cup – an investment that has yet to pay dividends. The cancellation of the 2020 edition in Boston because of the pandemic did not help.

The company doesn’t have many tennis clients: Federer, Zverev are about it. Newcomer Coco Gauff doesn’t have an official contract with the agency, we’re reliably told, although it has negotiated several deals on her behalf.

Juan Martin del Potro and Grigor Dimitrov were once associated. Dimitrov left, and del Potro’s affairs are reportedly now managed by his father for the most part.

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Zverev looks for some attention from his team at the US Open. (Stephanie Myles/OpenCourt.ca)

Financial implications

Zverev’s adidas contract is shortly up for renewal, if there wasn’t enough going on.

Adidas is a German company; they may well stand behind their countryman. No statement has yet been issued; when you think of how quickly Maria Sharapova’s sponsors reacted after she announced her positive doping test, it’s a big vacuum.

So far, we’ve not heard much of anything from Team 8. Zverev is in Paris this week to play the Masters 1000 tournament there.

French government recently imposed stricter COVID-19 restrictions. So no fans will be allowed to attend. Perhaps it’s a blessing.

He makes his debut in doubles Monday, on the smallest court.

The effect on sponsors

In addition to adidas, Zverev has lucrative sponsorship deals with Head racquets, Richard Mille watches (whose top star is Rafael Nadal, another superstar whose public image is immaculate), Peugeot cars (for whom Novak Djokovic is the top tennis face) and the fashion brand Z Zegna.

Sponsors have become increasingly skittish in recent years when faced with unsavory accusations in their representatives’ personal lives.

And in the current climate, where the pandemic is hurting a lot of companies financially, those decisions become more weighted.

As for the ATP, which has clauses about “conduct detrimental to the game”, it is a non-factor other than the fact that Peugeot is also a platinum-level partner sponsor of the Tour.

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Zverev prepares for an interview with German head of mens’ tennis Boris Becker – who has some experience himself in dealing with the PR fallout from off-court issues. (Stephanie Myles/OpenCourt.ca)

Tennis players are independent contractors, not employees of the tour. That’s a completely different structure, say, than the NBA or NFL, which has to deal with its players’ off-court behavior even when the leagues would prefer to ignore it.

This story is in its infancy (pardon the pun) and is not going away.

How Zverev, and everyone around him, handles it will be the story within a story, with a lot weighing in the balance.