Australian Open: Betgate Investigative Unit Announced, Questions Linger


2016 Australian Open - Day 10 : News Photo

Bill Simons

MELBOURNE—One phrase comes to mind – “Tennis anyone?” 

After all, the Australian Open is one of the game’s great events. All the focus should be on some scintillating semis. 

But, never before has an off-court development so impacted a tournament as has the “Betgate” gambling story here at the Australian Open. The troubling narrative has stuck around like the tenacious David Ferrer in the final set. 

“Betgate” began ten days ago, when, just an hour before the Melbourne action began, the BBC dropped a bombshell. Match-fixing, they claimed, was a severe problem in the game.

Yes, the report was wretched journalism. Then again, sensationalism often creates a sensation. Observers were worried. They noted there was a lot of smoke coming from the broadcast, so there might be some fire. The revelations, said Mary Joe Fernandez, “cast a very dark shadow on our sport right now.”

Tennis was shaken.

Many hoped the dust-up would go away. It didn’t. The New York Times published a report about a suspicious mixed doubles match at the Australian Open. An Australian player, once ranked No. 187, pleaded guilty to match-fixing in a Sydney court. Australia’s Financial Review printed a troubling article. Even more disturbing was the highly disputed story by the recently created datablog Show Legend. They claimed they made mathematical calculations to figure access odds on matches, and thereby supposedly identified the 15 players “whose matches according to Buzzfeed have regularly shown suspicious odds changes.” They named the players and included the legendary Lleyton Hewitt. Many bristled. ATP Chief Chris Kermode said it was “deeply unfair.” Hewitt insisted it was “a joke… just absurd.” Show Legend insisted they only wanted “to reveal the real names behind the BuzzFeed IDs. We do not imply that these players are involved in match-fixing.”  

Ten days ago, ATP Chairman Kermode vigorously defended the Tennis Integrity Unit. His message: We have confidence, all is well – there is nothing in the sport that is being suppressed.

Then this morning, there was one of the most historic press conferences in tennis. Leaders of the game’s seven governing organizations – the ATP, the WTA, the ITF and the four Grand Slams – gathered and admitted the current atmosphere was “toxic.” They said action had to be taken immediately. An independent review board, led by London sports law attorney Adam Lewis, would look into the effectiveness of the Tennis Integrity Unit. 

The board, said the powerful tennis leaders, would have all the money and time it needed. And, most importantly, any suggested initiatives would be enacted.

All the while, the huge FIFA bribery scandal hovered. It was like an 800-pound gorilla in the room. Kermode said, “We need to address the perception [and] public confidence [and] hit it head on. We don’t have anything to hide…But you don’t need another sports administrator standing up here and telling you that. In light of what’s happened over the past year with other sports governing bodies, we don’t want…that. Let’s get someone independent in and we’ll take it from there.”

A reporter said to Kermode, “Last week when the BBC report came out, you very much said you did not believe there was widespread corruption…You expressed complete confidence in the TIU…Do you not think [that] the timing of this announcement today will be seen…as an admission there is actually more of a problem than was maybe admitted last week?”

Kermode replied, “No, not at all…The intention of doing this is to be really, really proactive and take this head on…We want to be constantly vigilant…This is a very bold step…Certainly the events of the last 10 days have caused damage to our sport. There is no getting away from that. We remain totally confident in the work of the Tennis Integrity Unit…Everybody who loves our sport…can have the knowledge…[that] we are doing all we can do to make sure the integrity of the sport is maintained…We had to act quickly.” 

Wimbledon chief Phillip Brook sounded a similar note, saying, “We are determined to do everything we can to remove corruption from our sport.”

Many applauded the move, seeing it as a bold, critical step forward. Others weren’t sure. Michael Mewshaw – a whistleblower, investigator and unsparing critic, was among them. In a commentary for Inside Tennis, he noted, “We’ve moved in a matter of days from Kermode’s adamant denial that anything’s wrong with the TIU to what now appears to be a major review. The question arises – does this represent a change of heart or a PR move? In politics and corporate life, the appointment of a review panel is traditionally the way an organization tries to give the impression of doing something when it’s actually doing nothing. The political name for such panels is ‘bogsatt’ – short for ‘bunch of guys sitting around a table talking.’ There have been many such tennis committees assembled to deal with problems over the decades. In almost all cases nothing was ever accomplished. Back in the ’80s the Men’s Tennis Professional Council, which then ran the game, actually filed RICO charges (Racket Influenced Corrupt Organization) against a number of agencies. With no explanation and nothing achieved – at least nothing that was shared with the public – the charges were dropped. One has only to flash back to 2008 and the inauguration of the TIU to see the same sort of soaring announcement about its independence and diligence, blah blah blah.  

“It is worth noting that unlike Kermode’s earlier statements which suggested he had limited powers to pursue telephone, computer and bank data, he now says that the TIU has ‘substantial investigative powers.’ As for Adam Lewis, QC, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But it’s unclear precisely what powers he has. Is he like a Special Prosecutor who’s free to pursue evidence wherever it leads? Is he free to recommend penalties and free to cross examine witnesses under oath? What exactly is his remit?”

“His CV needs to be read with care and with a gimlet eye for contradictions. He’s very much an establishment figure who has been a paid gun for hire on both sides of controversial cases. He’s often represented soccer players and clubs against FIFA, but has also represented FIFA. I wonder what his reaction has been to the recent scandal which has prompted the arrest of FIFA officials for bribes. Did he have any knowledge of such crimes?  

“Then, too, it is revelatory and troubling to read the long list of Mr. Lewis’ clients. There’s his representation of FIFA, UEFA, and FA, soccer organizations currently in the news for all the wrong legal reasons. Far more troubling is that he represented a prominent tennis supplier, a big agency, and broadcasting rights holders. Doesn’t this place him in a serious position of potential conflict of interest? If he’s done business with these groups, how likely is he to be objective about their potential complicity?

“Moreover, his clients have included the ITF, the Grand Slam Committee, the LTA, and the All England Club. How objective can he be if his review produces evidence of complicity or culpability, sheer ignorance or indifference on the part of these organizations?

“Plus, Lewis has represented Richard Gasquet and Mariano Puerta in their doping cases. Everybody, of course, deserves vigorous legal defense. Everyone from Mafia dons to human rights violators should get their day in court. But the lawyers who represent these defendants aren’t normally appointed to head up independent review panels.”

Mewshaw concluded by stating, “I can guarantee you that if you mention any of this in an article you’ll be the only tennis reporter to do so.”

Throughout “Betgate” many numbers were discussed. Kermode said in tennis there is “a zero, zero tolerance” for corruption. Others noted that there are 23,000 players participating in ITF events. Since 2008, $14 million has been spent combating corruption. There have been 18 convictions. The ITF has a five-year $70 million promotional deal with Sportsradar, a Swiss gambling company.

Martina Navratilova slammed the BBC report. Still, she asked, “How do you police hundreds [and] thousands of matches? We’re talking millions of dollars.” She added, “It’s a bit hypocritical…when you’re asking the players not to wear a patch on their shoulder for William Hill, a gambling company…but the tournament itself can promote William Hill or other betting companies. We are being a bit two-faced…You can’t support gambling on the one hand and then say it’s bad on the other.” In the end, ITF Chairman David Haggerty contended, “We would rather have facts than speculation,” adding, “We have a moral compass.”

Everyone in tennis hopes so.