Abuse has raised its ugly head again in our sport, with the latest victim, a former tennis player and now a member of the Polish Parliament, Katarzyna Kotula, accusing Miroslaw Skrzypczynski, the country’s tennis association president, of sexual harassment.
The best way to improve safeguarding, is to tell our stories. May many more players feel the strength and support to report other situations of abuse of any kind. Pam Shriver
On Monday, Ms Kotula told media that she had suffered abuse as a 13-year old at the hands of Skrzypczynski, while he was her coach.
A former junior player, Kotula described Skrzypczynski as a ‘sexual predator’ and said he had molested her ‘at least a dozen times in three years’ at a club in the north-east of Poland, where he coached in the 1990s.
Both Iga Swiatek and Hubert Hurkacz, Poland’s top players, called for further investigation into the allegations of long-running abuse by Skrzypczynski, news of which was first broken by the Polish website, Onet.
The publication had previously given anonymous accounts of juniors being sexually abused while under Skrzypczynski’s supervision, prompting him to ask for the names of the accusers.
“If Mirosław Skrzypczynski wants names, I am not afraid to speak up,” Kotula stated, and provided a detailed account of the abuse, adding that similar incidents also had happened to other young players.
According to the country’s national press, Skrzypczynski described the allegations, in Polish, as ‘unfounded’, and told Interia in a statement: “I declare that Katarzyna Kotula’s statements contain untrue information.”
He has been the President of the Polski Zwiazek Tenisowy, the Polish Tennis Association, since 2017, and steadfastly clung on to his post this week until the pressure to resign proved grew too great, and he has now reportedly stepped down.
World No 1 Swiatek, the reigning US and French Open champion, took to Twitter on Tuesday to demand action in a lengthy post: “As current leader of women’s tennis I can’t remain silent. I consider the reports involving the Polish Tennis Association’s president as something serious.
“We need to think about them (the victims) first of all,” she said, listing helplines for those seeking advice. “I’m against violence in sports, in tennis, in every discipline and in everyday life.
“When it comes to physical violence or emotional abuse, the most important issue is thinking and being sensitive about victims.
“And when we speak up about something wrong happening we need to think about them first and most of all.”
Swiatek urged the governing bodies to deal with the matter, insisting it was her responsibility to use her influence and ‘be a voice’ in such situations.
The 21-year-old, who won 8 titles in 2022 and dominated the women’s tour, urged the association ‘to find out what went on’, adding: “It’s not my job to do the work of the association’s directors or reporters as the case is too serious involving the lives and wellbeing of others.
“What I can do is to encourage you to look for help when something bad happens in sports communities and in every situation in life, when there is a possibility someone can suffer from physical violence or emotional abuse,” she added.
“Personally, I was lucky not to experience such difficult, terrible situations and I am grateful for my Dad and how wisely he managed my career.
“I have an amazing team, safety and currently I’m really privileged but I’m aware that not every athlete could have the same independence.
”I hope that with exposure of such matters and solving them carefully and fairly, sports will change for the better, in Poland and the world.
Swiatek’s 25-year old compatriot, Hubert Hurkacz, also issued a statement, opposing the abuse of power by coaches or guardians of players and asking officials to take steps.
“I support all women and all victims of abuse,” the ATP World No 10 tweeted. “No coach or guardian should use their power and position towards anyone.
“Any aggression both in sports as well as outside of it needs to be condemned and punished.
“I hope that appropriate authorities will react to the press reports on the subject of the head of the Polish Tennis Association – Mirostaw Skrzypczynski.”
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident, and it is clear that, for many, it is difficult to speak out without good support.
In September news broke that 25-year old Fiona Ferro from France had accused her former coach Pierre Bouteyre of sexual assault and rape between 2012 and 2015 in Saint-Raphaël, from the age of 15 to 18.
The French Tennis Federation (FFT) has backed Ferro to file a civil lawsuit against him, and the complaint was filed in February.
After several months of investigation, Bouteyre was formally charged on 18 August, and the 50-year-old now faces up to 20 years in prison.
Ferro, who reached a career-high of 39 in the world last year, said she had not consented to sexual contact with the 50-year-old coach.
French media reported that Bouteyre’s lawyer said his client was not denying having sexual acts with Ferro, but claimed that it was with her consent, prompting the Frenchwoman to take to social media to underline that she had never consented to such acts with her former coach.
“I take note of Pierre Bouteyre’s position on my accusation of acts of rape and sexual assault by a person in authority,” said Ferro on social media. “I confirm that I was not consenting and that the rapes and sexual assaults were committed by moral constraint according to Article 222-24 of the Penal Code.
“I place all my trust in the justice system of my country and confirm that I do not wish to make any other statement on the criminal investigation procedure.
“Thank you very much to all those who show me their support in this difficult but necessary step,” Ferro said in a statement posted on her Instagram profile.
Bouteyre was a tennis player prior to becoming a coach, competing at two Grand Slam tournaments, where his a best result was reaching the 2nd-round at Wimbledon in 1996.
France’s Alizé Cornet, who made the quarter-finals of the Australian Open this year, was coached by Bouteyre from 2000 to 2010, from the ages of 10 to 20, and the 32-year old briefly worked with him again for 8-month period in 2019.
Cornet acknowledged that Ferro’s allegations are ‘serious’ and said she had reached out to Ferro, to offer her support.
“It’s far too serious and serious a subject for me to talk about during the tournament,” Cornet said at the US Open when the news broke. “It obviously affects me a lot and, maybe, that’s one of the reasons why I don’t sleep very well at night,” she told L’Equipe.
“Obviously, I’m sending huge support to Fiona, which I did via text because she’s my buddy. It’s terrible, for both of them and especially for Fiona. He was my coach for 10 years so it’s not cool to learn that kind of stuff.”
A WTA spokesperson joined the FFT in supporting Ferro, stating: ”We applaud Fiona for having the courage to come forward with these allegations. We are pleased to see a full investigation and legal process being pursued.
“The WTA is dedicated to ensuring a safe environment across our tour. Safeguarding requires vigilance, and we are continuing to invest in education, training, and resources to improve our efforts.”
Belarusian Victoria Azarenka, who is on the WTA Player Council, said that safeguarding is ‘the topic that has to come out more’.
American Kylie McKenzie held a press conference in March after suing the USTA who, she claimed, had failed to protect her from a coach who sexually assaulted her at the age of 19 at one of its training centres.
American pundit Pam Shriver dropped a bombshell when she revealed in April that she had an inappropriate and damaging relationship with her much older coach, Don Candy, that started when she was 17 and he was 50.
Shriver, a 22-times Grand Slam doubles champion, is now 59 and only felt able to speak out after Candy’s death at the age of 91 in 2020 in his hometown of Adelaide in Australia.
“My main motivation is to let people know this still goes on – a lot,” Shriver said. “I believe abusive coaching relationships are alarmingly common in sport as a whole.
“My particular expertise, though, is in tennis, where I have witnessed dozens of instances in my four-and-a-bit decades as a player and commentator.
“Every time I hear about a player who is dating their coach, or I see a male physio working on a female body in the gym, it sets my alarm bells ringing.
“As far as solutions go, I don’t have all the answers. I think it’s possible to educate young athletes, but you probably have to start before they even reach puberty: maybe when they’re 11, 12 or 13.
“By the time they graduate to the main tennis tour, many patterns have already been set.
“And then there’s the coaches,” Shriver added. “The best way to protect their charges is to put them through an education process before they arrive on tour.
“The same goes for other credential-holders: physios, fitness trainers and so on.
“The point has to be made very clearly: these kinds of relationships are not appropriate, and there will be consequences for those who cross the line.”
Shriver revealed that she went to therapy to address the impact of her experiences when the Covid-19 pandemic had curtailed her workload, and added that when she eventually split with Candy as her coach, she enjoyed the most successful time of her career.
In an echo of the well-documented Peng Shuai affair in China, Shriver was a willing victim for much of the time.
“I still have conflicted feelings,” Shriver said. “Yes, he and I became involved in a long and inappropriate affair. Yes, he was cheating on his wife. But there was a lot about him that was honest and authentic. And I loved him.
“Even so, he was the grown-up here. He should have been the trustworthy adult. In a different world, he would have found a way to keep things professional.
“Only after therapy did I start to feel a little less responsible. Now, at last, I’ve come to realise that what happened is on him.
“My relationship with Don was a traumatic experience for me. The after-effects lasted far beyond the time we spent together.
“Our affair shaped my whole experience of romantic life. It stunted my ability to form normal relationships and set certain patterns which would recur: my ongoing attraction to older men and my difficulties in understanding how to maintain healthy boundaries.”
Shriver also sent her support to Ferro: “Sending my best support to Fiona Ferro,” the American wrote. “The best way to improve safeguarding, is to tell our stories.
“May many more players feel the strength and support to report other situations of abuse of any kind.”