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WATCH: Zverev's Acapulco tirade

I can guarantee you, I will never act this way again in my life. It was definitely the worst moment of my life. Alexander Zverev, currently ranked No. 3 in the world and competing in the Indian Wells Masters 1000, on his expulsion from the Mexico Open in February following a violent meltdown that triggered a stiff fine and a (deferred) eight-week suspension from the ATP Tour.

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Well, it turns out that the “worst moment” of Zverev’s life may not prove as damaging to him as to the ATP Tour’s image. After a two-week investigation by the organization, Zverev walked away with a $40,000 fine and eight-week suspension—but both the penalties were deferred, contingent on Zverev avoiding further serious player-code violations for a 12-month period.

Immediately after the ATP announced the result of its investigation into Zverev’s Acapulco freak-out (he smashed his racquet into the umpire’s chair, narrowly missing the official’s feet, four times), criticism rained down on the organization from many quarters including fans, former and current tennis officials, journalists—even Serena Williams leapt into the fray, telling CNN: “There is absolutely a double standard. I would probably be in jail if I did that. Like, literally, no joke.”

Although Williams didn’t elaborate on the nature of the “double standard,” bear in mind that Williams herself has also dodged suspension. In 2009, a critical foot-fault call led to her US Open semifinal loss to Kim Clijsters. Incensed, Williams threatened to shove a ball down a line judge’s throat while menacing her with a blue-streak of verbal abuse. Williams was fined, but her two-year suspension also was deferred and never executed.

It appears that the “double standard” that links these two cases, and others, isn’t based on gender or race, but on tennis’s version of “class,” the rankings and celebrity quotient of a player. It’s the divide separating lunch-bucket players from the drawing cards of the game, those whose presence in a draw can make an enormous difference at the box office.

It’s safe to assume that the leniency accorded Zverev is noticed by all ATP Tour players. It’s another, potential irritant to the journeymen who often feel that the stars get preferential treatment. The same players who have suffered—especially since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic—from the tour’s prize-money structure. The great disparity between the payout for the game’s big winners and the rank-and-file gave impetus to the formation of the still inchoate Professional Tennis Players’ Association—a project led by none other than that major beneficiary of tennis’s top heavy reward system, Novak Djokovic.

After being kicked out of Acapulco, Zverev suited up for Germany in a Davis Cup qualifier ahead of Indian Wells.

After being kicked out of Acapulco, Zverev suited up for Germany in a Davis Cup qualifier ahead of Indian Wells.

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This is certainly an awkward moment for the organization. And it comes at a time when the ATP is in the midst of a push to highlight initiatives like a more muscular presence in the media, and greater engagement with the other stakeholders in the pro game.

“We have worked more closely with the WTA on some marketing initiatives and also with the other major organizations through the launch of the T7 working group made up of the four Grand Slams, the ITF, WTA and the ATP,” Andrea Gaudenzi, the former ATP pro who took over the chairmanship of the ATP Tour in January of 2020, recently told German sports website, Spox. Yet the response to the Peng Shaui affair by the tours couldn’t be more different. The WTA pulled its fall tournaments in China, while the ATP is promoting five events there.

ATP pros are increasingly willing to challenge the organization that was founded in 1972 on the idea that the best way forward for tennis was through a partnership between the tournaments (via their promoters) and the players. Reilly Opelka, currently the top-ranked American at No.17, has taken to Twitter to express some of his grievances, calling for, among other things, Gaudenzi to step down and addressing “conflicts of interests” within the governing structure. Opelka also questioned why the tour is led by former players who have limited business experience.

“The ATP is a boys’ club,” Opelka told TENNIS.com’s Stephanie Livaudais in a revealing interview.

The accusations suggest a serious lack of transparency in the operations of the ATP Tour. Given the kerfuffle over the Zverev decision, the criticisms are more that much more striking.

Care for another example of the double standard? Back in 2016, when it still looked as if mercurial Nick Kyrgios might emerge as an impact player in singles, he was suspended for eight weeks following the “major offense” (the most severe category in the ATP’s code-of-conduct) of showing a lack of effort (tanking) in a match in Shanghai. That suspension was reduced to three weeks when Kyrgios agreed to see a sports psychologist.

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Whatever treatment Kyrgios got didn’t appear to take. In 2019, he indulged in an ugly outburst, verbally abusing and spitting in the direction of veteran ATP Tour chair umpire Fergus Murphy. The Australian showman received a suspended sentence—probation, rather than suspension.

The “soft” remedy may not be working. New York Times tennis correspondent Chris Clarey called the punishment of Zverev “at best, a slap on the wrist.”

“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,” Richard Ings, a former executive vice president for rules and competition at the ATP Tour, told Clarey, adding, “Umpires need to be protected in their workplace. Player abuse of officials is growing based on recent incidents, and this soft sanction will do nothing to deter future misconduct.”

The first Grand Slam of the year produced eyebrow-raising outbursts by volatile Daniil Medvedev—currently ranked No. 1—and Canadian contender, Denis Shapovalov.

Zverev, who is also the subject of an ATP Tour investigation into allegations of domestic abuse brought by a former girlfriend, was appropriately contrite after his non-penalty punishment was announced. Referring to his meltdown, the 24-year old told German reporters. “It still is embarrassing for me now. Walking around the locker room, it's not a nice feeling. But we all do mistakes. I'm also a human being.”

Zverev, the Olympic gold medal singles champion, has been embroiled in a number of other controversies. This time, he rationalized that he had been on-court, playing a singles match, until around 5 a.m. on the same day he lost it following the doubles. “I think there are stress situations in everyone's life where stuff like this happens. I'm not the first, I won't be the last for something bad to happen on the court.”

The odds of that surprisingly smug prophecy coming true will certainly be increased by the lax way the ATP Tour, following an ingrained pattern, is administering discipline for clear violations of its code-of-conduct.

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