"Acts that constitute domestic violence... are prohibited at all times and regardless of where they occur. The Parties shall establish a joint committee to provide education, support, treatment, referrals, counselling, and other resources for players, their family members, and others at risk." - The NBA's policy on domestic violence.
Had tennis had such a policy in place, Roger Federer could have cited it earlier this week in response to the allegations of abuse against Alexander Zverev. Allegations which Zverev strongly denies. (Full disclosure: Caitlin Thompson is the publisher of Racquet, which first reported the allegations.)
Instead, the game’s biggest celebrity, highest endorsement earner and co-holder of the record number of Grand-Slam titles (on the men’s side, anyway) had this to say:
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“Sasha is a great guy,” and “...that’s super private stuff that I really don’t want to comment.”
When asked if the ATP should join many other professional sports leagues in creating a domestic violence policy by Ben Rothenberg, a tennis journalist who broke the story about Olya Sharypova’s claims of domestic violence and has been responsible for much of the follow up reporting, Federer responded:
"We’re independent contractors, I guess, so it’s maybe more complicated than others? Uff, I don’t know I haven’t… I feel like this is something very personal, and I guess when you’re employed at a club or in a league it’s something very different, in my opinion, because then you get a salary from there. But of course there needs to be a certain code, like they have on the court, but that one’s also gotten more and more strict over the years. So now you want to move over into the private life as well?"
Federer’s characterisation of tennis’ disorganised approach to setting rules, salaries and policy is completely accurate but doesn't show the whole picture of the opportunity Zverev’s case provides. As a senior leader in tennis - having served multiple terms as part of the ATP Player Council - and one of the few celebrities who resonate outside the sport, Federer could have addressed a few very simple and overdue measures, as well as lay the case for ones that are more grandiose.
Firstly there is the need to address the issue correctly. David Kane, an editorial producer at Tennis Channel and a longtime WTA employee, summed it up perfectly: "Whether an athlete is an independent contractor or not, domestic abuse is never a ‘personal’ matter," he said.
With a complete and well-informed domestic violence policy in place in tennis to refer to, such as the one outlined above from the NBA (which has had rules and resources on the books for years, and revisits it each year), there may have been a different response.
Calls for the establishment of a policy have increased in recent months, both because of the Zverev case but also because of legal proceedings against Nikoloz Basilashvili, a Georgian tennis player who is currently being tried on charges that he physically attacked his ex-wife. Basilashvili has played a full ATP Tour schedule while the case has made its way through Georgian courts. The country only outlawed domestic violence in 2012, previously considering it a “private matter,” and the case has already shifted attitudes toward intimate partner abuse in the former Soviet republic.
Federer could arguably have been better prepared to take a more effective public position on the issue - especially since Zverev was at the time of the alleged incidents represented by Federer’s management company, Team8, and that one of the alleged incidents of abuse detailed by Sharypova happened at the Laver Cup, an event Team8 co-owns and runs. Zverev parted ways with Team8 in January.
The NBA joins boxing, the NFL, Valorant esports and many other leagues and teams in having a code of conduct that encompasses behaviour on and off the court. Those other leagues' policies would have kept Basilashvili from competing until his case is resolved and would have had Zverev being independently investigated, removing the pressure and onus from the accuser to press criminal charges (something we know women are loathe to do, given that they are often not found credible and subject to victim blaming) and placing it on a league determined to make sure its stars are representing the sport the way it deserves.
Calling for a policy change might have been too much to ask for a player more focused on his comeback on clay than a story that has been simmering in the backdrop, but Federer’s explanation of the fractious nature of tennis feels insufficient. Instead it’s another reason, along with appearance fees and pay equity, that tennis needs a joint-gender governing body that can create binding policy.
Federer would be an obvious candidate to run it, given his on-court bona fides and off-court profile. But maybe the best candidate of all is Andy Murray, who not only joined Novak Djokovic to call for an ATP policy on domestic violence, but has time and again proven his big-picture view when it comes to community health and gender equity. It’s a tough job, Andy, but tennis needs you.
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