Australian Open: Fixing a Problem – The Grand Slam Begins With a Controversy

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2009 Shanghai ATP Masters 1000 - Day 2 : News Photo

Argentina’s Martin Vassallo Arguello  Photo: Getty Images

BILL SIMONS

MELBOURNE—We all have problems.

Even Gandhi, Mandela and the saintly Mother Teresa had their downsides. As for sports, headaches abound everywhere. Baseball suffered from the devastating Chicago White Sox–Black Sox scandal in the ’20s. One of the sport’s greatest stars, gambling Pete Rose, is banned from baseball’s Hall of Fame. A points-shaving scandal rocked college basketball in the ’50s. Gambling is interwoven with the NFL and its lore is filled with the names of many who had gambling problems: Paul Hornung, Alex Karras, Joe Namath and Art Schlichter. In the NBA, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley had their issues.

Worst of all, there’s boxing, a sport covered in a whole sub-genre of grainy Hollywood movies about thrown bouts.

Then there’s tennis. Never mind that your grandfather’s pleasant country club sport is rooted in the seemingly virtuous ways of the Victorian era. Rather, the game is such an individual sport and so susceptible to tampering. Tennis spans the world’s cultures, which have wide-ranging takes on gambling. Players ranked below 100 have to deal with the relentless costs of travel, housing and coaching. Plus, these days, gambling is so refined – casinos are accepted in most of the world, and it’s easy to gamble online. Some argue that lower-ranked players might think, “So what if I hit three double faults in the first set of a minor tournament? I still could win the match. Nobody would know, and what I got from the gamblers would pay my hotel costs for a month.”

Richard Ings, who heads Australia’s Anti-Doping Authority, recently said, “If you were to invent a sport that was tailor-made for match fixing, the sport that you would invent would be called tennis,”

Plus, tennis has been on a slightly slippery ethical slope for some time. No, we are not talking about the prickly issue of whether the most important match in the game’s history – the 1973 Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs “Battle of the Sexes” – was thrown by Riggs. Rather we refer to the fact that not all the matches you play even impact your ranking. You can lose without any real ill effect. Plus, there are extensive guaranteed payments. Players, after receiving their appearance money, on occasion just throw in the towel. Then it is not that unusual for players to intentionally lose a match, when it doesn’t work for them. Aussie Bernie Tomic seemed to have just done that on the eve of this year’s Australian Open, so he wouldn’t be exhausted on the eve of his country’s big Slam.

Of late, there has been an alarming increase in the connection between gambling companies and tennis. In Europe, tennis broadcasts regularly feature ads for betting. The ATP signed a gambling company as the major sponsor of its Hamburg event – the Bet-At-Home Open. The ITF inked a lucrative contract with Betway, the world’s leading online betting company, and their signage now dominates many key telecasts. For the first year, there will be advertising for a gambling company in the Australian Open’s three biggest arenas.

Tennis’ key organizations are cultivating and empowering the gambling industry and sending a clear message to tennis’ considerable audience that’s it’s good to gamble on the game: i.e. “bet at home.” But there is little sense that this is playing with fire and, as Roger Federer has noted, how critical it is that the public sees the sport as being clean, flawlessly fair and having an essentially level playing field. There is nothing more critical than this foundation of fair play. It never should be taken for granted.

Yet, neither he, Djokovic or Maria Sharapova stepped up to say that yes, tennis should back away from having gambling companies sponsoring the sport.

Inside Tennis put the issue to Federer, saying, “Roger, to your great credit, you’ve always called for a level playing field in tennis or other sports. But still, perception is so important. How can tennis ask players not to be involved in gambling and yet take one sponsorship deal after another and have big signage promoting betting companies at events?”

In his response, Roger ultimately punted. He said, “I don’t know. It’s

a tough one to talk about one or the other. In some ways they’re connected. In some ways they’re not connected at all. It depends on how you really look at it. Betting happens all across the world in all the sports. The players just need to know, we need to make sure

the integrity of the game is always maintained…I always [said] why do you come and watch…any match, because you just don’t know the outcome. As long as we don’t know the outcome…it’s going to be exciting. The moment that gets taken away, there’s no point anymore to be in the stadium.

“That’s why it’s super important to keep it clean. In terms of having sponsors around there, I guess there is a lot of money there. Maybe, who knows, could it be helpful? I don’t know. This is a question more for people in suits  than a guy in a track suit. I don’t know.”

What we do know is that here in Melbourne, as fans turn their attention to the Australian Open, many insiders will be turning to England because an episode of the BBC program File 4 on Tuesday will focus on match-fixing and corruption in tennis. Among its claims: At least eight current or former top 50 players who’ve repeatedly been flagged for possible match-fixing or suspicious betting are competing in this year’s Australian Open.

As BuzzFeed News rolled out an extended report in advance of and in conjunction with the BBC coverage, Tennis Australia issued an official statement of integrity. The Australian Open also found itself in the not exactly flattering position of hosting a press conference on match-fixing during the first day of the tournament.

That conference, featuring the ATP’s chief Chris Kermode and Tennis Integrity Unit director Nigel Willerton, was long on prepared statements and short on details. Kermode made it clear that the Tennis Integrity Unit’s investigations, which have resulted in 18 convictions and 6 lifetime bans to date, require moving beyond hearsay to documented evidence. 

But questions from writers quickly made it clear that in the act of investigating match-fixing, the TIU runs into the problem of needing a player’s consent to access phone, email and other communications. Others claim they have much stronger powers. Measures could be taken and more resources could be spent combatting the problem 

Asked whether tennis’ increasing ties with gambling companies were problematic, Kermode responded with a kind of counter-offensive, saying “I think it’s a very real point. I don’t think it’s an issue…and I think it can actually help at times. Because, you know, Nigel [Willerton] and the Tennis Integrity Unit are working with betting companies all the time to spot corruption. But the distinction to make is that betting itself is not an illegal pastime…many people do bet on sport. What we’re talking about is corruption. 

“Sometimes we can talk about betting and corruption in the same [breath], and they are different. I think the more we work with betting companies – because…it’s in their interest that there isn’t corruption, right? – so they are as strong as we are, that we are getting rid of corruption within the game.” 

Moving outward from a notorious 2007 match between Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo Arguello – both now retired – in Sopot, Poland, the BuzzFeed News report, titled “The Tennis Racket,” argues that the Tennis Integrity Unit that was formed in 2008 could or would not look backward at past instances of wrongdoing, has been slack in prosecuting more recent instances of match-fixing, and operates with a lack of transparency that currently hinders fair play within the sport.  

Illustrated with photos, graphics and links to official documents (many with names redacted), the article draws connections between match results and gambling rings in Russia, Italy, Spain and Argentina. It suggests that lower-ranked players stand to make far greater profits through match-fixing than they do through prize money.  

But France’s Gilles Simon quickly dismissed the report as “useless…a bomb…[with] not much inside.” Serena Williams, Marin Cilic, Sharapova and Kei Nishikori all said they’ve had no direct experience or awareness of fixing. However, Novak Djokovic confided that his camp was offered $200,000 in 2007 to throw a match in St. Petersburg, Russia. “It made me feel terrible because I don’t want to be…linked to this,” Novak said. “Somebody may call it an opportunity. For me, that’s an act of unsportsmanship, a crime in sport, honestly…There is no room for it in any sport, especially in tennis.”

True enough. Still, some claim that tennis would have to change much of its culture to crack down on betting. Critics will be watching. That’s one thing you can bet on.