Andy Murray's one-man moral crusade is far more than just gesture politics

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Andy Murray vs Alexander Zverev, Indian Wells: live score and latest updates
Andy Murray vs Alexander Zverev, Indian Wells: live score and latest updates

It would be too strong to class Andy Murray and Alexander Zverev's meeting at Indian Wells as a grudge match. But a converging of polar opposite public personas, it most definitely is.

Murray is widely regarded as the archetype male ally and feminist in sport; world No 4 Zverev is accused of domestic violence against his ex-girlfriend, Olga Sharypova. Ahead of the tie, Murray's response to questions about their off-court relationship were revealing in their brevity. “I wouldn't say we're best friends," he said of Zverev. "Yeah, I mean, we don't really chat a whole lot.” It is unsurprising.

While the ATP remained silent on the allegations against Zverev for nearly a year, Murray has become a player spokesperson of sorts on the matter. He repeatedly called out his sport's governing body for its failure to act quickly enough.

In a move welcomed by Murray, last week the ATP finally responded, announcing its formal investigation into the claims. Quite rightly though, he recently questioned why he was one of the only players consistently asked for his view. The answer lies in his well-established, unofficial role as the moral conscience not only of tennis, but sport as a whole.

Whether it is the coronavirus pandemic or women's issues, Murray has always found a way of publicly articulating his progressive views. He has defended and encouraged equal pay (and criticised the likes of Novak Djokovic for his opposition). He has urged tournaments to rethink their scheduling, so women feature as much as men do on the show courts. And who can forget the viral videos of his curt handling of reporters airbrushing women - mainly the Williams sisters - from tennis history?

Murray has said his eyes were opened to sexism in sport in 2014, when he became one of the first major men's players to appoint a female coach, Amelie Mauresmo. He has since written essays about the importance of having more female coaches across sport.

On the Zverev story, he stepped up when few others have. First reported by American journalist Ben Rothenberg last November, Sharypova alleges that Zverev punched her in the face when in Shanghai for the 2019 ATP Finals and smothered her with a pillow ahead of the US Open that same year. She claims his controlling behaviour led to her attempting suicide.

Alexander Zverev of Germany - Getty
Alexander Zverev of Germany - Getty

Zverev, 24, denied the allegations, and took out an injunction in a German court against the reports. For his part, he has also welcomed the ATP's investigation, and agreed with Murray that the governing body has been too slow. But, with typical self-assurance, also said, "It's very difficult in my situation because a lot of the times the man is not really believed." An interesting take, considering the number of domestic abuse cases reaching the courts has plummeted in recent years, according to UK figures.

While Zverev's comments pertain solely to his personal stake in things, Murray has - consciously or not - built a brand as a man of the people. His diligent care for inclusive language and support for issues that affect women have often disrupted the status quo, and speaking out on the Zverev allegations showed once again he is unafraid to ruffle feathers.

A select few have followed suit. Broadcaster and former player Mary Carillo became the first major name to actively protest the ATP's inaction, pulling out of her presenting role at the Laver Cup last month. Canadian player Milos Raonic also said recently that he was "embarrassed" about the ATP's handling of things.

Other major names have been less inclined to wade in. Roger Federer - whose management agency used to represent Zverev - shrunk away from questions, calling the allegations "private stuff", and calling the German a "great guy".

Djokovic supported the need for a domestic violence policy in tennis, but simultaneously described Zverev as a "very nice guy" who he has "a lot of respect for". Rafael Nadal has said very little. Whether he likes to admit it or not, Murray has forged this image as sport's moral compass.

When slugging out points against Zverev on the court, supporters may find it difficult to separate the contest from the off-court narrative.

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