The fact Alexander Zverev was the face of the Laver Cup did not sit well with Carillo
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Earlier this month, American broadcaster Mary Carillo should have been in Boston, at the glitziest show in world tennis. She was due to present at the Laver Cup, a Ryder Cup-style team tournament for the top men’s players. Instead, she was on the sofa, watching Disney cartoon Moana on repeat with her granddaughter Reya.
Some things are bigger than tennis, in Carillo’s opinion, and the fact world no 4 Alexander Zverev was the face of the tournament did not sit well with her – not when his ex-partner had accused him of domestic abuse although he vehemently denied them.
So Carillo did not watch a single minute of it.
She has commentated on many of Zverev’s matches in the 11 months since his ex-girlfriend and former junior player Olya Sharypova publicly claimed he physically and mentally abused her. Each time she had her microphone in hand, Carillo made a point to mention the accusations, including Zverev’s consistent denial of them. But the Laver Cup felt different because it is an event where players are hand-picked and invited to be a part of. "I had just grown more and more uncomfortable with the idea my opinions might get hamstrung," Carillo says carefully, speaking from her home in Florida.
After a conversation with the organisers, she pulled out, saying she wanted no part in the "whitewashing of very serious allegations". Carillo was the first person in tennis to publicly sit out an event because of the Zverev saga, but while she took a stand, the rest of the sport remained tight-lipped.
The ATP finally announced last week that they had launched an "internal investigation" into the Zverev allegations. The governing body’s brief statement came after almost a year of silence. While the ATP dragged its heels, Carillo was disappointed that – beyond Andy Murray, who has repeatedly challenged the ATP – the sport’s biggest names put very little pressure on the powers that be.
"I genuinely don’t get it," she says. "[The players] have power, influence – they have a megaphone. The top men, but what about the top women? These allegations are about a young woman who actually was a tennis player – don’t [they] want to know what happened? Aren’t [they] curious?"
Known for her opinionated style, Carillo has worked in broadcasting for four decades, after her playing career – which included winning the 1977 French Open in mixed doubles with John McEnroe – was cut short by injury. Her links with the locker room and the commentary booth run deep, and yet she does not hold back on criticising those who failed to speak up. "I feel like my whole sport is hiding behind a very large couch," she says, an exasperated laugh escaping from her lips. "I want to say, ‘What are you doing back there? Pop your head up! Say something. Or at least raise your hand in solidarity.’" She shakes her head. "It’s a big a– couch."
In the commentary booth, while some like Jim Courier and coach Darren Cahill have on occasion reminded viewers of the Zverev story, others have been less inclined. "It’s very frustrating. They’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m not gonna get into that’ or ‘you care about that stuff a lot more than I do’. The funny thing is, a bunch of us can have an incredibly opinionated breakfast, and then those same people are in the [commentary] booth and it doesn’t get brought up. The breakfast talk tends to be a lot more… honest."
Carillo says it is not just fellow pundits, but also the television networks who she says have done little to support coverage of the story. "Because of that, the people [commentating] next to me don’t feel compelled to react one way or another. It just sits there," she says. "The networks are complicit, deeply, in the silence surrounding this for the last 11 months."
Carillo did not intend to publicly protest the Laver Cup. She still considers herself only a "tiny pea" in the narrative. But she decided to go public to show solidarity, not only with Sharypova, but also American journalist Ben Rothenberg who broke the story. She is not convinced it has resonated widely. "I don’t think my not going to the Laver Cup did much good at all – and I lost work. So I’m an idiot at the end of the day," she says laughing, throwing her hands up. "They’re still cheering for Zverev, so the population of people who have read Ben’s stuff is clearly meagre – compared to the whole tennis world."
Despite denying all the allegations, Zverev welcomed the news of the ATP investigation, saying this was the opportunity to "clear my name". Carillo has questions about proceedings: "There’s got to be transparency. Here’s the ATP going from having nothing to now conducting an internal investigation, with what I can imagine is zero domain expertise. No wonder Zverev is saying ‘Bring it on’. He doesn’t sound jumpy, does he?"
She knows using her voice may lose her friends in the industry – and more work – but it is a risk she is willing to take. "If I get less work now, that’s on me," Carillo says, sighing. "The fact the ATP has put out a release, should release people to talk about it more. But until and unless the ATP actually comes forward with some real findings, I think it’s in the ether."
As for her plans the next time she commentates on a Zverev match? "I can’t imagine I’ll do anything except what I’ve been doing for the last year."