Zverev’s Swings Merited More Than a Slap on the Wrist

SAN DIEGO — Somehow, the men’s tennis tour is allowing the German star Alexander Zverev to play on. He will be in the field for the BNP Paribas Open, which begins this week in Indian Wells, Calif., despite his frightening, unacceptable abuse of an official just two weeks ago after a defeat in doubles in Acapulco, Mexico.

“The conduct of Zverev was the most egregious example of physical abuse of an official that I have seen in my decades working in and observing men’s professional tennis,” said Richard Ings, a former executive vice president for rules and competition at the ATP Tour.

After cursing at the chair umpire Alessandro Germani following a questionable line call, Zverev took four big swings at the umpire’s chair with his racket after the match. The first three blows landed close to Germani, causing him to flinch and shift his feet at one point to avoid being struck. After Zverev took a short break to curse at Germani some more, he returned for one more swing at the chair.

He was appropriately defaulted from the tournament after winning his subsequent singles match, fined $40,000 and docked the prize money he would have earned from the event. But though the follow-up investigation by the ATP rightly determined that Zverev, 24, had committed a “major offense,” he received the equivalent of a suspended sentence on Monday.

Zverev has been fined an additional $25,000 and given an eight-week suspension, but both the fine, a pittance to a top-10 player like Zverev, and the suspension will not be levied if he avoids further code violations for unsportsmanlike conduct or physical or verbal abuse for one year after the date of his outburst in Mexico.

This is, at best, a firm slap on the wrist, and it is hard to think of another major professional sport that would opt for such half-measures if an official were physically threatened to this degree by a player. Tennis does not shrink from suspending players for gambling on matches or for doping. But the sport has been sending inconsistent signals on protecting umpires for too long now, and the recent uptick in players confronting officials may be one of the consequences — see Daniil Medvedev’s and Denis Shapovalov’s outbursts at this year’s Australian Open. With the wider use of electronic line calling, tension between players and umpires should be dropping, not increasing. But Zverev raised the temperature far too high in Acapulco.

“Suspended sentences are a good tool when the player has a good conduct history, and I’ve used them, but in this case the misconduct was egregious and physically directed at the official in their place of work,” said Ings, who was in his ATP role from 2001-5. “A line has been crossed, and previous history is irrelevant. I would have imposed a four-week suspension, and I’ve held the exact job that made such decisions for the ATP.”

Miro Bratoev, the ATP’s current senior vice president of rules and competition, did not provide an explanation for Monday’s ruling. He is relatively new to the role, which he assumed in 2020, but several factors could have nudged him toward leniency.

Although Zverev has broken plenty of rackets, he has committed no major offense violations until now. The ATP investigation into accusations that Zverev abused his former girlfriend, Olga Sharypova, is ongoing, and thus could not play a role in Monday’s penalty.

Zverev’s apology after the Acapulco incident also was profuse. “It is difficult to put into words how much I regret my behavior during and after the doubles match yesterday,” he wrote on social media. “I have privately apologized to the chair umpire because my outburst towards him was wrong and unacceptable.”

There is also the matter of tennis precedent. Bratoev’s predecessor, Gayle David Bradshaw, favored probation and also chose the suspended-sentence route in 2019 with Nick Kyrgios, the combustible Australian player, after a series of tantrums that included Kyrgios verbally abusing the chair umpire Fergus Murphy and spitting in his direction. Kyrgios was given probation even though he already had been suspended once for a “major offense” after showing a serious lack of effort in a match in Shanghai in 2016 (that suspension was reduced from eight weeks to three after Kyrgios agreed to see a sports psychologist).

Other leading players also have struck the umpire’s chair with their rackets in anger without being suspended. Karolina Pliskova, a former world No. 1, smacked the side of the chair after a loss to Maria Sakkari in Rome in 2018 and received only an unspecified four-figure fine from the women’s tour. Medvedev, now the ATP No. 1, struck the chair twice during the 2020 ATP Cup and was given a point penalty and a fine.

But though both of those incidents also deserved stiffer penalties, neither Pliskova nor Medvedev came nearly as close to striking the chair umpire or to displaying the same level of fury as Zverev.

“If a player breaks his racket on the umpire’s chair, and he is literally a few centimeters away from hitting the umpire’s leg, he should not be allowed to get on a tennis court until he’s gone through some kind of rehab, some kind of time,” said Mats Wilander, a former No. 1-ranked player and a Eurosport analyst, before the ATP ruling was announced. “We need to punish him accordingly and allowing him to come out and play professional tennis the week after — or two weeks after — that is too soon.”

Zverev played in the Davis Cup in Brazil last week.Credit…Sergio Moraes/Reuters

Serena Williams spoke about Zverev’s outburst in an interview with CNN last week, saying there was “absolutely a double standard” and that she “would probably be in jail if I did that — like, literally, no joke.”

Monday’s soft punishment of Zverev likely did little to change her view, but its relevant to remember that Williams also avoided suspension in 2009 after a profanity-filled tirade against a lineswoman during her U.S. Open semifinal loss to Kim Clijsters. Williams, despite threatening to shove the ball down the official’s throat, was fined $82,500 and placed on probation for two years.

Zverev, ranked No. 3, already has competed since the incident in Acapulco, representing Germany in a Davis Cup match in Brazil last week. The Germans won, but Zverev complained afterward that the crowd had crossed a line by directing personal abuse at his family and support team.

Sharypova, a Russian player, has not brought formal charges against Zverev since her accusations of domestic abuse were first reported by Racquet Magazine in November 2020. He has denied abusing her, and the ATP did not announce its investigation until nearly a year later. The inquiry is, according to ATP officials, being conducted by an outside party.

It has been a tense time for quite some time for Zverev, but he has managed to produce some brilliant tennis: He won the gold medal in singles at last year’s Summer Olympics, pushed Novak Djokovic to five sets in the semifinals of the 2021 U.S. Open and then defeated Djokovic and Medvedev to win the prestigious season-ending ATP Finals in Turin, Italy, in November.

But this season has not begun auspiciously for a player who has yet to win a Grand Slam tournament singles title. One of the big favorites at the Australian Open, he was upset in the fourth round by Shapovalov in three error-strewn sets, demolishing a racket in frustration in the second.

Then came Acapulco and a much more serious failure to control his temper. It should have cost him more than a default, a middling fine and probation, but the ATP has missed the opportunity to send the right message to its public, to its players and — above all — to its officials.

“Umpires need to be protected in their workplace,” Ings said. “Player abuse of officials is growing based on recent incidents, and this soft sanction will do nothing to deter future misconduct.”

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