Professional sport must be a beacon when stars make headlines for wrong reasons | Barney Ronay
So much for the good times. The show will go on for Nick Kyrgios at Wimbledon, starting on Wednesday with a quarter-final against Cristian Garin, the first of three hypothetical steps towards a long-shot first grand slam title win. But for now the party, the bunting, the King Nick buzz, is over.
Sport loves to spin these stories. Over the past 10 days Kyrgios had seemed to be turning into one of the English summer’s chief objects of fascination, a brilliant, charismatic tennis player; albeit a brilliant, charismatic tennis player with some obvious deference issues, clothing issues, politeness issues, stifled talent issues and, simply, issues.
Kyrgios is still all of those things, notwithstanding the news overnight from Australia that he has been summonsed by a Canberra court to face a charge of assaulting an ex-girlfriend. According to the Canberra Times the summons “relates to an allegation Kyrgios grabbed former partner Chiara Passari” in December last year.
Kyrgios is, like anyone else, innocent of any charge until a court decides otherwise. The case, if there is to be one, will remain sub judice until that point. Whatever the court of instant public opinion might decide, the only certainty right now is that it is a deeply sad situation for all involved.
Sport just melts away in the face of these issues. There has been a global rise in reported cases of domestic violence from the start of the Covid pandemic. Domestic abuse made up 18% of all offences recorded by the police in England and Wales in the year ending March 2021. Those who work in this area suggest that encouraging those who might be victims to come forward is an enduring problem. For this reason alone it is vital to tread carefully, to have a way of speaking to these issues, to take the heat, the pressure out of a bruising and delicate process.
At which point it is hard to avoid the sense of coming full circle; to conclude that, like it or not, this is an issue that professional sport must face full on. Sporting bodies, broadcasters, athletes and their agents all trade on image-making. There are millions to be raked in by the likes of the All England Club and the ATP from retailing that iconography, from surfing the tides of fandom and sporting celebrity. Nobody here is simply running a tennis tournament or adding up the ranking ladder.
At which point it becomes necessary to ask the obvious question: how does professional tennis intend to address issues such as these, which will attach themselves to the human product like it or not? What is the plan here, the protocol, the policy? Is there even the desire to have one?
The ATP already has a record of failure here. This is in essence a commercial body, a shared market for the sole traders of men’s professional tennis, making the wheels turn and divvying up the pie. The ATP is not a welfare body, or a regulator of the public good. The Premier League, the Football Association, the Rugby Football Union, the England and Wales Cricket Board: all of these have a more explicit governance and disciplinary role, a sense of being tied, however distantly, to making this thing look right.
Whereas the ATP has failed to show any real will to tackle these issues. In December 2020 Olga Sharypova, Alexander Zverev’s ex‑girlfriend, made serious allegations of abuse and violence in an interview with Racquet Magazine. Sharypova alleged Zverev punched her in the face and grabbed her by the throat. At one point, she says, she tried to take her own life by injecting herself with insulin.
Zverev denies all the allegations. But in the months that followed these details simply wafted around tennis, free from any kind of formal process or guidance. At the French Open last year Zverev was able to tell the TV cameras: “I know that there’s gonna be a lot of people that right now are trying to wipe a smile off my face but under this mask I’m smiling brightly.” Cool, bro. Later that year he read out a statement on his phone during an ATP finals press conference (er, really?) stating that this was “not who I am, not how I was raised by my parents”.
The ATP eventually promised to formulate a policy to deal with allegations of abuse. It also launched an investigation into Sharypova’s comments. To date nothing has happened. The update is: there are no updates.
But then, this has been the way of these things. In May 2020 Nikoloz Basilashvili was arrested for an alleged assault on his ex-wife. Basilashvili is also innocent until found guilty, his case still pending. But professional tennis has offered nothing, no set of principles, no way of processing this kind of situation. As of 6pm on Tuesday evening nobody at the ATP had made any kind of statement on the news from Australia.
The All England Club made a statement of sorts on Tuesday night, acknowledging that it had heard the news from Canberra and that Kyrgios is scheduled to play a quarter-final. All of which is, no doubt, good to know.
The reality is big sport does have a duty to regulate its commercial theatre; at the very least to lay out a procedure, a set of guidelines, a sense that it is taking this seriously. Does tennis have a problem here? It can be an utterly brutal environment for these touring freelancers, an endless reel of hotel life and constant scrutiny. There are plenty of pros and ex-pros who have seemed at times hollowed out by this existence, ghosts in the machine.
There is no mitigation here, no excuse for abusive behaviour. But it is worth remembering that the lives of these captive specimens, taught from a young age to believe in their own stardust, can be a deeply strange place. Wherever the Kyrgios case heads from here here, it seems an act of negligence that those who govern professional tennis still seem ill‑equipped to manage the fallout, and to care for those caught in its radius.