Australian Open: A Dark Shadow

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2016 Australian Open - Day 4 : News Photo

TENNIS’ GAMBLING SCANDAL UNFOLDS

Bill Simons

MELBOURNE—It touched everyone and no one – or so it seemed.

The sudden emergence of tennis’ gambling scandal “really casts a very dark shadow on our sport right now,” said ESPN’s Mary Joe Fernandez, the wife of Roger Federer’s agent.

It’s not surprising that Chris Evert confided, “I have been so sad about this. We as tennis players have always been so proud about the integrity of our sport. Hopefully the truth will come out.”

Jonathan Bernstein, a longtime Public Relations expert in California said, “I think public perception right now is that there is fire somewhere behind the smoke, and that’s going to be the default until proven otherwise.”

Remarkably, the conversation even tangentially includes the beloved Roger Federer, who as much as any other athlete, has been celebrated around the world.

In an extensive 2010 article, the widely-respected New York Times tennis and sports writer Christopher Clarey reported that Roger “had sought a detailed explanation from Ted Forstmann, the head of his [then] management company IMG, after a lawsuit charged that Forstmann had increased a bet on the 2007 French Open final after consulting with Federer.” Clarey reported that Forstmann, who has since died, was being sued “by Agate Printing, Inc. for fraud, interference with contract and breach of contract. In the complaint, Jim Agate…contends that he served as a conduit for hundreds of bets totaling millions of dollars that Forstmann placed on sporting events…[Federer] has denied that he was aware that Forstmann was betting on that 2007 match and denied any involvement with gambling, saying, ‘I would never do such a thing.’ Federer said he contacted Forstmann for clarification after learning of the lawsuit.”

The Times reported that Roger said he “reached out and told him I want to know everything about it, how this came about…And he’s been, you know, nice enough obviously to tell me from his side and has been very open in the press already. So that’s O.K. He’s not my agent. Tony [Godsick] is my guy, but still, it’s a firm that does a lot in sports, so it’s just something that for me is important to know what is going on from their side, too.” Asked what he learned from the situation…[Federer] said that it had further underscored the need for vigilance.

“That names get thrown around, that you can’t help sometimes,” Federer said. “That’s just the way it is. So from that side, for me it was crazy news to hear that, but obviously, it’s not a good thing when IMG or Ted Forstmann is involved in it.”

Forstmann admitted to betting on tennis and sports, but denied that he got any information from Federer. The former agency head told the Daily Beast, “I might have called Roger before the match in 2007. But Roger is a buddy of mine, and all I would be doing is wishing him luck.”

The Times noted that the lawsuit against Forstmann claimed that he bet $5,000 on Roger to win the 2006 French Open final (which he lost to Nadal) and two bets totaling $33,000 to win the 2007 French Open final (which he also lost).

Until 2009 there was no specific Grand Slam rule against players providing information to gamblers. Federer is no longer with IMG.

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the International Tennis Federation, which only runs a portion of tennis, signed a five-year $70 million deal with the Swiss gambling company Sportradar: a huge sum compared to baseball’s $3.5 million annual deal or the NFL’s $5 million a year. One veteran press room observer quipped, “it’s rare that tennis outstrips football or baseball, but in this case we sure did.”

Andy Murray stated, ‘It’s a little bit hypocritical, really. I don’t believe the players are allowed to be sponsored by betting companies but then the tournaments are…It’s a bit strange.”

Longtime gadfly Michael Mewshaw was perplexed. “So the ITF,” he told IT, “While supposedly investigating gambling by players, has signed a $70 million deal with a bookmaker. The cynic in me wants to see this as Machiavellian wisdom: Hold your friends close, but hold your enemies closer. But I’m afraid the realist in me fears it’s just a farce. Laughable if it weren’t so sad.” 

Tennis’ gambling controversy is curious. There’s no smoking gun. There isn’t a single current player who has been implicated. But there’s a torrent of extraordinary accusations, a problematic history and damning claims from anonymous sources and former operatives. Many claim that plenty has been swept under the carpet. Martina Navratilova tweeted, “We need facts, not suppositions.” But Patrick McEnroe saw it differently: “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. This is a major, major wake-up call for the world of tennis.”

Columnist Patrick Hruby addressed the specter of gambling in tennis. He wrote colorfully in 2013, “I love tennis. I don’t want to believe that it’s a wretched hive of scum, villainy and surreptitiously double-faulting on match point for ill-gotten dollars, the better for some match-rigging Moldavian mafioso to cash in on a hefty online bet. Besides, Serena doesn’t need her opponents to take dives. Roger isn’t hard up for cash. Gael Monfils’ erratic play can be best explained by…being Gael Monfils. If I learned anything in journalism school…it’s that one anonymous source, no matter how highly placed, does not a Watergate make.”

But tennis – an individual international sport with minuscule margins in talent levels – is a perfect target for gamblers. When it comes to worldwide betting activity, it’s said to be right behind horse racing and soccer.

Truth be told, conflicts of interest and other ethical issues have long shadowed the game. Players can choose which of the smaller tournaments will – or will not – effect their ranking. Appearance fees and guarantees have long been woven into the fabric of a sport dependent on a handful well-branded superstars. These payments surely can effect competitive integrity. Everyone’s human. If you get $300,ooo to play an event you may not want to fire up for every match or dive for every drop shot. So who cares (except the fans and promoters) if you suffer a shock upset in an early round, especially if you want to spend some time on a beach with your family.

In fact, many claim that tanking is endemic to the sport. Observers often ask, “Are players giving their full competitive effort?” Sometimes players are just frustrated and essentially say “no mas.” Or they want to catch a plane and to avoid a travel nightmare or just save energy for a big upcoming event. That’s what Bernard Tomic seemed to do just last week in Sydney before the Australian Open. On court the young Aussie was heard saying, “I’m looking [ahead] to Melbourne, I’m not looking to this. I have to make the final [here] to make points. I have to make the final … I have to win to go to 16th [in the rankings].” Tomic then withdrew mid-match. Many claimed he tanked, but Lleyton Hewitt backed him.

In the context of the recent, but incredibly flimsy, accusations that Novak Djokovic tanked a 2007 match, longtime gadfly Michael Mewshaw contended the Serb was “like many of the other players who travel with a large entourage. It’s often quite clear to many other people when a player intends to tank. Thus even if the player himself would say he isn’t tanking for betting purposes, he opens up the possibility of members of his entourage using the knowledge of his tanking, which itself is a code violation, to place bets or to pass along information to off-site bettors.”

These days one can bet on anything from greyhounds to cricket. Tennis gambling is now incredibly sophisticated – you can wager on every little nuance of the game – sane and silly. Top players making millions would be reckless to even entertain any idea of throwing a match or even a single point. For players below the top 100 who don’t make the big money at Grand Slams, it’s an altogether different dynamic. The tour is a pricey Darwinian struggle.

Leo Shlink reported that Thanasi Kokkinakis, who is now No. 86, said he “received offers…on social media. You read some stuff on your Facebook page, just randoms from nowhere saying ‘I’ll pay you this much money to tank the game.’ But you try to…get rid of that stuff.”

The BBC’s controversial report on gambling, which just focused on men’s tennis, indicated that there were 16 prime gamblers on tour. Andy Roddick then tweeted that he got a text “from another former tour pro [which said] ‘We should see how many of the 16 betting guys we can name.’ I think I got at least 8-9.”

In 2011, the Swedish paper Svenska Dagbladet published the names of 41 players who allegedly were under scrutiny by officials for match-fixing.

Of course, even the weightiest of scandals attracts humor, just ask friends of Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton. Ernests Gulbis, the son of one of Latvia’s richest men, reportedly lost (on conventional bets) much of his $450,000 earnings after reaching the 2014 French Open semis. After his first-round Aussie Open match, he quipped that gamblers hadn’t approached him because “they probably think I’m too rich.” Nikolay Davydenko, who was at the heart of a 2007 betting scandal, was asked, “if you were a betting man, who would you bet on to win Wimbledon?” Earlier this week, Frenchman Gilles Simon joked, “We’re all tanking versus Djokovic. Novak is nothing [on court]. In reality, we are all fixing.”

Differing views on the gravity of tennis’ gambling issue have long been heard. In 2007 the former ATP CEO, the late Etienne de Villiers, said, “What we see now is not a problem. There isn’t a corruption problem in tennis.” But, former French Federation president Christian Bimes then warned that gambling was “a dreadful disease that is a threat for tennis worldwide. We have to act straight away and be as severe with this as we are with doping.”

Recently, Shamil Tarpischev, the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, said the gambling dust-up was “just a personal promotion of the BBC, which we shouldn’t react to.”

But longtime watchdog Mewshaw told IT that he “felt like former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who would say, ‘I can explain this to you but I can’t comprehend it for you.'”

Mewshaw contended, “Several points in this scandal are utterly misguided and completely wrong: 

• That the TIU is not a police department and cannot gain access to a player’s phone, computer and Internet files. The rules say that they have access to these records and that a refusal to comply with that request subjects a player to suspension.

• Commentators keep saying that the ATP and ITF couldn’t take action against a player unless it had “100% proof” that a match was fixed. This is absurd. Even in a criminal court 100% proof isn’t demanded, simply guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and that can be proved by circumstantial evidence.

• The media claims that the TIU, the BBC and BuzzFeed hasn’t produced the names of the suspect players because it would have to have proof of guilt that would “stand up in a court of law.” This is absurd. Suspects are named by reporters all the time, long before their conviction and before they’ve even been arrested and charged. A suspect is just that — somebody who has raised the suspicions of authorities. That’s why so many papers have mentioned that Djokovic is under suspicion for having tanked a match.  

• It’s important to discuss Djokovic’s alleged tanking [in Paris in 2007 against Fabrice Santoro] in the context of the current scandal. Players and commentators who’ve said they’ve never been aware of any fixed match certainly would admit that they’ve heard about and perhaps participated in tanked matches. According to the Code of Conduct, there’s really no difference between purposely losing a match for personal convenience and losing because of gambling. Both are forbidden and are supposedly subject to suspensions and stiff fines. But the rule against tanking has rarely been invoked, which is what makes it very difficult for authorities to now get serious and actually enforce the rule against tanking for gambling purposes. Tanking often takes place with the knowledge of ATP officials and with the complicity of agents and tournaments.”

As tennis groups aggressively promote betting and gain huge profits from the gambling industry, they shamelessly spin these money-making deals to make them sound like a grand development or an ethical service.

Up is down. Isn’t it wonderful that the fox now lurks about the hen house?

ATP chief Chris Kermode said it is good “the more we work with betting companies, because…it is their interest that there isn’t corruption, right? So they are as strong as we are that we are getting rid of corruption.”

Andrew Walker, the ITF’s executive director for commercial enterprises, told the Wall Street Journal that the ITF’s $70 million gambling deal helps the ITF ensure “that where sports betting on tennis is legal, there’s an opportunity for…betting entities to receive data that is the fastest, most accurate and most reliable.”

The big William Hill gambling company works closely with the Australian Open. Their alliance drew criticism from the State of Victoria and other Grand Slams. Still, William Hill contended, “Close partnerships between… betting operators…and sporting bodies are part of the solution to integrity issues, not part of the problem. We have comprehensive information-sharing agreements.”

But few would agree that tennis getting so cozy with gambling houses is great for a sport where integrity is everything, or that it sends the right message to players and millions of fans. So a dark shadow hovers.

No wonder Chrissie Evert and so many others are feeling sad about a sport that is so loved by so many.