Dangerous Accusations German Tennis Star Alexander Zverev Faces Career Turning Point

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Alexander Zverev, 2020, Copyright www.peterrigaud.com

Alexander Zverev, Germany’s best tennis player, has been accused of domestic violence by an ex-girlfriend and his clash with a former manager is now in court. Does this spell the end for a rising star?

By Marc Hujer und Thilo Neumann

The day his ex-girlfriend Brenda Patea would announce via an interview with the German gossip magazine Gala that she is expecting his child, Alexander Zverev is sitting on a white leather sofa in his parents’ home in Hamburg. The tennis professional, who is widely known by his Russian nickname of Sascha, is thinking about the meaning of family.

“You will have friends who come and go,” he says. “You’ll have relationships that come and go. But family is something you can never replace in life. You only have one family, and that’s it.”

At this moment, Zverev knows nothing of the accusations that Olga Sharypova, another former girlfriend, will make against him just a few hours later. She will claim that he pounded her head against the wall and that he pressed a pillow into her face. She will even later claim that she wanted to take her own life in a hotel room out of desperation. Zverev will vehemently deny the accusations.

But at this particular moment, all still seems well in Zverev’s world. He has his dog in his lap, a gray toy poodle named Lövik, or “little lion,” that his mother gave him. His brother Mischa has retreated to the first floor, where the brothers’ childhood room is still to be found, complete with old youth trophies and the Nintendo console, which they still use to play golf against each other. His father is there, while his mother is preparing dinner in the kitchen.

Alexander Zverev has been at his parents’ place for the last two days, having traveled in from Cologne, where he won two tennis tournaments in two weeks. In another 48 hours, he is scheduled to travel onwards to Paris for another tournament, before heading to London for the ATP finals.

These weeks in late autumn could end up being decisive in Zverev’s career: Will he manage the jump to global stardom despite the adversity? Or has he ruined his reputation and scared away his sponsors and fans?

That morning, Zverev spent an hour and a half training with his brother Mischa and his father Alexander at UHC Hamburg, his home club. He then went to the ophthalmologist, who he has known since he was a youth player at UHC. Now, though, he has a bit of time to talk about his relationship to Germany and the lack of excitement for tennis in the country. And about the discrepancies between his public image and how he sees himself.

He gazes at the cherry wood cabinets on the living room wall which hold a number of souvenirs, including a teddy bear from Wimbledon, a shoe autographed by Dirk Nowitzki and countless trophies from past victories. Next to the cabinet is the small table holding the family’s television set and an old VHS player.

It all still looks as it did 14 years ago when the family moved in and he was still a child: the first home they built themselves.

DER SPIEGEL: What does home mean to you?

Zverev: The courts at UHC, this house, this sofa.

DER SPIEGEL: What is the most important thing your parents have given you?

Zverev: That you need to have fun in what you do.

DER SPIEGEL: Is there a classic role division in your family, with a strict father and a more understanding mother?

Zverev: Nobody is strict with me.

He is now 23 years old and is seventh in the world rankings, with the next German on the list, Jan-Lennard Struff, to be found in 36th. Two years ago, Zverev won the ATP final in London, beating Roger Federer and Novak Djoković – the best in the world – in successive matches.

Thus far, though, he has been unable to triumph at one of the majors in Melbourne, Paris, Wimbledon or New York. Until last year, he had never even managed to advance beyond the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event, despite all the predictions from colleagues and experts that he would ultimately end up as the No. 1 tennis player in the world. Then came this year, when he managed to make the semis in the Australian Open and then, in September, the US Open final, where he fell just two points shy of victory. In the end, though, it again wasn’t quite enough.

Ugly Accusations

He would love to be able to leave his past behind him. But it keeps catching up.

This week in London, the trial is getting underway against his former manager Patricio Apey, who Zverev fired 23 months ago. The focus of the trial is on a contract that Apey signed with him and his parents back when Sascha was 15 years old.

Zverev, it is said, feels as though he was taken advantage of by his own manager. He feels like a victim, which is why he is now trying to defend himself.

Everything was looking quite good for him until recently. He was happy to have made the decision to disassociate himself from Apey and was looking forward to a new beginning. Last year, he signed a deal with the American management company Team8, which is partly owned by his childhood idol Roger Federer. But now that the trial against Apey is starting in London, Zverev suddenly finds himself confronted with the ugly accusations from his ex-girlfriend.

And in the stories she has to tell, he isn’t the victim.

The allegations from his former girlfriend found their way into some headlines, particularly in Germany, where he was already having a difficult time. There hasn’t been a truly successful tennis player in Germany since Boris Becker and Michael Stich, but even so, Zverev wasn’t getting much attention from the German public. On one hand, tennis has lost some of its importance over the years. On the other, Zverev’s somewhat conceited manner hasn’t been universally well-received. When he lost in the third round at Wimbledon in 2018, he left with the words: “I’ll be on a boat in Monte Carlo. You won’t see me around here any longer.”

This summer, he participated in the Adria Tour, organized by Novak Djoković. Taking place as it did in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, it was a controversial tour from the start, and it was played in front of full stadiums in both Belgrade and Zadar. There were also pictures of parties with half-naked guests and no apparent concern for social distancing rules. When Zverev returned to his apartment in Monte Carlo, he said was quarantining – only to have fashion designer Philipp Plein post a video online showing Zverev surrounded by dancing party-goers at a Monte Carlo beach club, his shirt unbuttoned to his bellybutton and his head bobbing to the music. Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung branded him the “bad boy” of tennis.

“That wasn’t OK,” he now says on the white sofa. “That’s not me. I’m not the partying type. I have never been one to party, it was a one-time thing. Even in the corona break, I was saying we’ll see later who kept working and who took it easy – and I’ll keep playing just as I always have.”

Confident and Relaxed

He says he understands that he now carries quite a bit of responsibility – for his family as well. “We all stay together,” Zverev says, “we depend on each other. In the beginning, it was my parents who did everything. At some point, it was my brother, and in recent years, it has been me.”

Above his bed in his old room hangs a poster of a coastal cliff somewhere in the world, he’s not sure where. He just thought it fit him better than the poster of a Maldives beach hanging over his brother’s bed. To the right of the cliff poster is a photo of him next to Roger Federer at the Halle Open. Federer had won the grass-court tournament and Zverev wanted a picture with the victor.

Zverev was 11 years old at the time and was traveling, as he frequently did, with his brother Mischa, who had won the doubles title in Halle.

In the picture, he is standing just in front of Federer. He doesn’t even come up to the tennis star’s shoulder, but he looks so confident and relaxed standing there, smiling with his accreditation around his neck as though he was the star.

For him, his small world at UHC Hamburg never seemed all that far away from the greater world of international tennis – no dividing line that he first had to cross. Even as a young child, he visited all of the tennis meccas, standing in the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne and on Centre Court at Wimbledon almost before he could even play. When he first asked Federer for an autograph, he was just five – and he asked in English because he hadn’t yet known that people from Switzerland speak German.

His father Alexander Mikhailovich Zverev was once the best tennis player in the Soviet Union and his mother Irina Zverev was No. 4 in the Soviet Union. His brother Mikhail “Mischa” Alexandrovich Zverev, born in Moscow in 1987, made it to 25th in the world. They all made their mistakes so that Sascha wouldn’t have to make them himself. When it comes to tennis, it is hard to grow up in more privileged surroundings than Sascha Zverev.

But privilege can also lead to improvidence.

Zverev’s mother spent a lot of time at home with him when he was a child, while his father and Mischa were traveling the world. She also trained him as a child and taught him his technique. She’s a perfectionist, Sascha says of his mother, and training sessions with her only came to an end when everything had been done perfectly.

There is also something that unites the two beyond tennis – a spiritual kinship, as Irina describes it. If he feels tired on a given day, she says as an example, it is often the case that she also feels tired. They were both born in April, says Irina, and they are both Aries, but she believes their bond also has to do with the fact that she breastfed him for more than two years because of his cow milk intolerance. “We were very close right from his birth,” she says.

Perhaps that is also the reason why it is so hard for her to sit down and watch him play. She doesn’t even watch his biggest matches any longer, preferring to go for a walk with Lövik the dog and Junior, Lövik’s son, born in 2019. Mischa says she’s simply too nervous to look on and wants nothing to do with anyone else in those moments. “If I call her during a match, there’s no chance,” says Mischa. “I could light the house on fire and she wouldn’t answer.”

“I Am a Free Person”

She also took a walk when Sascha played in the US Open final, even though the match took four hours. “That is one thing where we’re different,” says Sascha Zverev. “She is always much more worried than I am. I’m a free person. I’m like an artist.”

Sascha has always been more adventurous than his brother, and also enjoys being at the center of attention. Whereas Mischa preferred training in quiet on an auxiliary court, Sasha was attracted to center court even before he could really play tennis. Mischa remembers his little brother tagging along to tournaments as a young boy. “Even as a five-year-old in Australia, Sascha wanted to practice on Rod Laver, the center court. I had to tell him: Sascha, you can’t do that. We have to train on Margaret Court, the third-largest court. But he didn’t want to accept that. “Rod Laver is empty. Why don’t we practice there?”

Perhaps Sascha just lacks the lessons that his parents learned: that you can quickly lose all that you have achieved in life. They didn’t lead a bad life in the Soviet Union, until the communist regime collapsed. Gorbachev came, then Yeltsin and inflation – and everything that the couple had earned through years of tennis was suddenly worth nothing.

In December 1991, they received a work visa for Germany, whereupon they left everything behind and moved to Mölln, a small town not far from Hamburg. They had 500 deutsche marks in their pocket, says Irina. An acquaintance who supported Russian-speaking players, she says, helped her husband find a coaching job. He couldn’t speak German and only knew a few words of English, but he played a lot of tennis.

In 1995, they moved to Hamburg, and two years later, Irina Zvereva gave birth to their second son, Sascha. Their apartment was small, with Mischa’s room measuring just nine square meters (97 square feet), and when the brothers wanted to play table tennis, they would build a net out of cassettes on the table in the living room. But when real problems cropped up, Sascha was told nothing. The family planned his life so that conditions would be absolutely perfect for him. They wanted to turn him into a world-class player.

That was still the case in 2012 when Mischa’s career began to hit a roadblock. Mischa started losing more matches than he won, leading to a dip in his earnings, and he continued to be plagued by a slipped disk. He plunged to 150th in the world rankings. Distractions outside the world of tennis were also on the rise, like his new American girlfriend. “At that time, it was more important to me to develop as a person,” Mischa Zverev says. He says he started reading Schiller and Dürrenmatt, also dipping into Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” which was, he says today, “heavy stuff.”

Confusing Pitfalls

His phase of self-discovery, though, posed a threat to the family’s income model – and thus to the career of his younger brother. After all, Mischa – 25 years old at the time – had become the family’s primary bread winner, essentially financing his brother’s dream. “I realized that things were getting tighter and that in the long term, we would need assistance,” Mischa says.

In short, the family needed money.

It was at this moment that Patricio Apey, a Chilean businessman with extensive experience in the tennis industry, approached them with an offer. He would manage the Zverev boy, who was 15 at the time, on a commission basis and would advance the family 60,000 euros over the course of four years, with a specified repayment option. The deal covered nine pages of legalese. In English.

Today, the family says they didn’t truly understand the pitfalls that were included in the contract. Sascha, they say, had been too young, the parents had language problems and Mischa didn’t fully understand the document. But they did understand two things from the negotiations with Apey: The contract was to be valid for five years; and it would be advantageous to sign it as quickly as possible. After all, they didn’t want to get in the way of Sascha’s ascent.

They signed the document on Dec. 6, 2012, in Tampa, Florida – another city where the Zverev family once lived. Then Mischa chartered a small plane for $119 per hour to personally deliver the contract to Apey in Miami. “I flew back with the feeling that I had done a good thing,” says Mischa.

Everything went well in the initial years of the contract. Apey made the advance payments, found sponsors for Sascha and secured spots for him at the most important tournaments, always in consultation with the family. But then, the relationship began to deteriorate, the father recalls. “When Sascha turned 18, Apey suddenly only wanted to speak with him.”

His son started to change, says his father Alexander. He found it strange, he says, when Sascha suddenly came to him soon after turning 18 and said: “Guess how much money I earn every day!”

Alexander and Irina Zverev are rather thrifty by nature. Mischa remembers the family taking along the water bottles provided by the tournament organizer, so they didn’t have to order drinks the next time they ate in a restaurant.

“Really Bad Feeling”

Today, they no longer have to be quite so parsimonious. They own apartments in Hamburg, Florida and Monaco, they fly around the world and take their vacations in the Maldives. But they still haven’t completely abandoned the old reflexes, as can be seen when it comes to cars. Mischa has long wanted to buy his father a new car, but he insists on continuing to drive his old Opel Zafira.

As such, it’s not surprising that when Sascha started bragging about his bank balance, his father got a “really bad feeling.” No Zverev should talk like that, Zverev senior believes.

“It came from Apey,” says Alexander senior. “He tried to convince Sascha that he alone could make him rich.”

The Zverevs say that Apey sought to drive a wedge into the family in an attempt to isolate the favorite son for himself. He envisioned transforming the Zverev family into Sascha Zverev Ltd.

It is a strategy that Patricio Apey has allegedly tried with other clients as well. On one occasion, he is even said to have convinced a client to pay her parents a kind of severance and then block their access to her account. Was Apey trying to convince Sascha to do something similar?

In early 2019, Zverev terminated the contract with Apey. Sources close to the family say that he no longer felt that he was receiving fair treatment. Apey was allegedly taking advantage of him and using him to access other players and to further his business interests, say the sources. Zverev himself declines to comment on the situation.

Court proceedings got underway this week in London. The manager isn’t willing to accept the termination of the contract, insisting that it remains in force until at least the end of 2023 – for a total of 11 years. Beyond that, there are five additional years during which Apey won’t be managing Zverev’s affairs but will still be receiving commission payments. The family’s British lawyer, though, says the contract is illegal. It isn’t possible, he says, to sign a contract with a minor that will bind him for the majority of his career. Zverev’s parents say they weren’t fully aware of the implications of the deal when they signed. “I have the feeling that my son was cheated,” says his father.

Apey has declined to comment. When contacted by DER SPIEGEL, he referred to the impending trial and said he and his team were convinced of their position and were looking forward to “the complete and true story being told in court.”

There are a lot of things happening at once for the Zverev’s these days, and the family slowly has the feeling that there is more to it: the legal battle with Apey; the accusations from Sascha’s ex-girlfriend Olga Sharypova; the news of Brenda Patea’s pregnancy. Is it really all just a coincidence? Or has the Zverev family, who have devoted their entire lives – vacations, free time, places of residence – to tennis, developed their own version of reality? The reputation of an entire family is at stake.

“Tempering My Happiness”

It’s four weeks after our meeting in Hamburg, and the Zverev’s want to talk about the accusations, the allegations of domestic violence that are overshadowing everything, including the good news that the family’s youngest son is about to become a father. They join a video conference from their vacation in the Maldives: Sascha, Mischa, his family, and Irina. Father Alexander joins from Monaco, where he is taking care of the dogs.

Sascha Zverev says: “I’m becoming a father at age 23. That’s super young, of course, super early, but it’s still something I’m very excited about. But these accusations from Olga are obviously tempering my happiness a bit.”

Olga Sharypova and Sascha Zverev knew each other from their youth on the court. Sharypova also had dreams of becoming a professional tennis player. In September 2018, after having had no contact at all for several years, they became a couple. The relationship lasted for 13 months.

On Oct. 28, just hours after it became public knowledge that Zverev was expecting a child with another woman, Sharypova wrote in Russian on Instagram: “I was a victim of domestic violence.” And: “I was really afraid for my life.”

Zverev says he was taken completely off guard by the accusations and that he only learned of them through the internet one evening at his parents’ home in Hamburg. “I was sitting with Mischa in my room staring open-mouthed at my mobile phone and just wondering: What is going on?”

His parents had doubts about the relationship from the very beginning. They thought that Sascha’s girlfriend didn’t really fit well with his life or with their family. “Every mother wants a good daughter-in-law,” Irina Zvereva says. But Sharypova, says Irina, treated her like a rival for her son’s attention.  She and Sharypova would fight about small things, says Irina, like when the mother would pack Sascha’s sports bag with T-shirts and underwear as she had always done. “I told her that such things are normal in a family, but she didn’t understand.” Then there were the meals they shared: When she finished, says Irina, Sharypova would just get up and demand that Sascha come with her, even if the others were still eating. “It might be a small thing,” she says, “but through such things, you could see that she is restive and unstable.”

The father, too, remembers Sharypova as a young woman who wanted little to do with the Zverev’s family life. “It was clear that she led a different life. Sascha with his disciplined daily regime as an athlete – she was more of a party girl.”

Alexander senior says that the relationship actually ended on good terms. He says that in December 2019, about two months after the breakup, Sharypova called him, saying nothing bad about Sascha at all. Rather, he says, she had called to apologize, saying she had been “dumb” and done “a lot of things wrong”: Those are the words she used, says Alexander senior, adding that she said she would do anything for a second chance with his son. “I tried to calm her and told her that life goes on,” says Sascha’s father.

Now, though, his son is under suspicion of domestic violence. Sharypova has said she does not intend to bring her accusations to a court of law. It’s not about her and Zverev, she says, but about the truth. She declined to respond to questions from DER SPIEGEL about her experiences with the Zverev family.

“She’s not telling the truth,” says Zverev. He is lying all alone on the bed of a hotel, his brother is in the next room and his father has left the video chat. His mother is reorganizing the clothes in the wardrobe, which she always does when she’s nervous and needs a distraction.

“Our family is always united,” Sascha Zverev says, and then the video link breaks off. Once the connection has been reestablished, he asks what he had been saying.

Then he remembers. “Excellent,” he says. “That’s really all there is to say. We are always united.”

Der Spiegel

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