ATP Chief Executive Chris Kermode Photo: Graham Hughes/Getty Images
Suspect Reporting Clouds Simmering Controversy
MELBOURNE—The smoke of suspicion swirled.
On the opening day of the Australian Open, the BBC investigative show File on 4 and BuzzFeed News teased us, announcing that they had explosive information on gambling and match-fixing in tennis.
Skeptics, including Roger Federer, wondered. They essentially said, “Deliver the goods. Name names. Show us the proof.”
Supposedly all would all be revealed in a BBC TV program on Tuesday.
The show began with reporter Simon Cox noting that the research on gambling in tennis had been done, off and on, for six years. In a kind of high-hype mode, BBC quickly overstated its work, claiming – almost with glee – that “tennis has been rocked by revelations about suspected match-fixing in the sport, including several matches at Wimbledon. Tonight File on 4 reveals the full inside story, linking top players to suspected match-fixers.”
The full inside story was hardly revealed.
BBC stated that “a whistle-blower passed us a cache of secret documents which for the first time tells the inside story of how tennis kept secret the extent of players suspected to be match fixing, and how the problem continues to this day.”
“Wow,” we thought. “Fasten your seat belts – lay it out boys.” Thus began 36:41 seconds of daunting accusations, full-throated claims and questionable journalism.
It was said that if you could invent a sport tailor-made for rigging “it would be called tennis.” “It doesn’t take much to throw a match without anyone knowing,” noted Richard Ings, a former ATP investigator.
“Working with BuzzFeed News,” the BBC broadcaster boasted, “We’ve obtained a cache of tennis files from whistle-blowers. I’ve got them here and what’s amazing is actually seeing some of these things in writing in these confidential documents. Some of these things I’ve been told before. It’s amazingly powerful.”
Okay, so share.
The BBC provided almost decade-old news, including coverage laying out how three well-coordinated gambling syndicates in Russia, northern Italy and Sicily made hundreds of thousands of dollars on bets, many of which were described as “completely farcical.”
The show referred to sources who suggested that both players in rigged matches were probably involved. One player, Argentinian Martin Vassallo Arguello, and a Sicilian gambler reportedly exchanged 82 texts before a match which, according to the BBC, netted the Sicilian a hefty profit in the range of $350,000. By the way, gamblers are tough fellows. “These were not people to be messed with,” the show noted.
The BBC conceded that over the years the ATP has fined or suspended 17 players and one official for “corruption offenses.” But critics, including a former director of a betting company and a past investigator for the British Horse Racing Authority, said strong, conclusive evidence showing wrongdoing by a core of about ten players was sent to the ATP in America, and the group didn’t bring charges against any of those who had been targeted. The ATP was accused of being secretive. It was said they suffered from “an element of keeping things under wraps.”
But ATP Chairman Chris Kermode, a former tournament director, adamantly defended his group against any claims that the ATP was unresponsive: “From a tennis perspective, absolutely not, there’s no reason for tennis to do that. In fact…[players] have to give us information if they hear anything, so we proactively go out to encourage players to give information.”
Six years ago, investigator Ben Gunn suggested that the ATP was at a crossroads and needed to establish an integrity unit “with teeth” that would feature at least six investigators, including one analyst of betting trends. But the ATP formed its integrity group with just two investigators. Kermode said the choice to go for a smaller unit “was a judgement call…It’s about the effectiveness of the Tennis Integrity Unit. It’s not just about the numbers of people who work in one building; it’s actually the reach that they have. The TIU has connections with betting companies globally to get betting data and also with local law enforcement agencies around the world, so the reach is actually huge.”
But Richard Ings, who ran tennis’s first anti-corruption program, said, “What we don’t know [now] is the nature of that unit. It’s a very secretive unit…We don’t know what it’s investigating, and when it does find violations the information that’s disclosed is so minimal that we really can’t get a handle on exactly how it’s operating.”
It was also hard to get a handle on the BBC’s attribution-free accusations. Aside from Kermode, the only tennis player or active official the show quoted by name was Daniel Koellerer. The Austrian player said he was offered up to $50,000 to fix matches in Moscow, India and Paris, and that players ranked between No. 50 and 100 are most often targeted by gamblers. He added that there is frequent locker-room chatter about match-fixing, and the practice is “an open secret.”
But one has to consider one’s sources. In 2011 Koellerer was banned from the game for gambling.
The BBC also noted that the European Sports Security Association flagged more than 50 suspicious tennis matches in 2015. The File on 4 report claimed the game has more questionable gambling activity than any other sport.
Based on comments from an anonymous source, a former Spanish player who is now a trainer supposedly working at the Australian Open, File on 4 said, “Our investigation has established that eight players competing at this tournament have been repeatedly flagged to the Tennis Integrity Unit.”
Critics and players scoffed, “How irresponsible! Where’s the evidence?” As for the Spanish trainer, he reportedly said that until organized crime does something to harm a player or his family during a tournament, “nothing will be done [by authorities].”
Mark Phillips, former managing director of the gambling company Betfair, was also critical. He claimed the ATP “basically told us that they didn’t need our help, and they basically weren’t interested when we flagged matches and sent information up to them.”
Gunn, a former investigator for the British Horse Racing Authority who worked with the ATP, went further, saying the ATP was resistant to receiving information on gambling, and the group sent him an email saying “by sending them information about players, they [the ATP] could end up being sued.”
Again, Kermode defended the ATP. The Brit said, “I’m a strong believer that someone has to be proven guilty before we can suspend them…It’s only fair that until someone is proven guilty they can play, yes? [Getting] an alert about suspicious betting patterns doesn’t mean match-fixing is necessarily happening…It’s why when the TIU does receive this information, they investigate. But it doesn’t automatically mean there needs to be a conviction.”
Francesco Baranca, who heads Federbet, the oddly-named betting watchdog group, said there needs to be a change if tennis’ supposed gambling problem will ever be solved. “The only possibility I have,” said Baranca, “is to go to the police, because the tennis authority can investigate but has not the skill, has not the power, [and] maybe has not the chance to investigate so deeply.”
Kermode begged to differ, asserting, “All the tennis governing bodies have huge faith in the TIU. I think it’s doing a very effective job. We are trying to eradicate any of this wrongdoing…It is imperative that the product is real…[Tennis is] in the best place it’s ever been, because it is real. We’ve got to be vigilant…We are constantly reviewing the program…There is no reason why the sport wants to cover anything up because that is just not in our interest.”
Ultimately, the most damning commentary of BBC’s gambling report came from the show itself, when they admitted without blinking that “along with BuzzFeed News we’ve decided not to [name the players accused of gambling], because without access to their phone, bank and computer records it’s not possible to determine if they’ve been taking part in match-fixing. But tennis’ TIU does know the names, because of the warnings that have been passed directly to them from numerous bodies.”
If the public does not have names, we are left, at least for now, with many puffs of smoke and a potentially explosive controversy based on suspect claims. But things could change in this fast-moving story, which tonight shifted its focus to speculation about a one-sided 2007 Novak Djokovic loss in Paris to Fabrice Santoro. For ultimately, as Ben Gunn noted, “You only need a small…rotten core to actually disrupt the integrity of the whole sport. And don’t forget the media, sponsors and the general public. If they suspect that part of the sport lacks integrity, they’ll vote with their feet.”