Betgate: Simmering Gambling Suspicions Ignite

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2015 Hong Kong Open : News Photo

Spain’s Lara Arruabarrena  Photo: Getty Images

Bill Simons

MELBOURNE—The blockbuster BBC broadcast on gambling in tennis was odd.

It wasn’t because it was a story on betting that barely talked about odds.

It was odd because arguably the most respected news organization in the world, the BBC, teamed with BuzzFeed to air an inflammatory “gotcha” story. The show had biting accusations, but no names of current players, no details of actual wrongdoing and no damning comments by active officials.

On the other hand, the BBC’s timing was superb. The tease for the broadcast broke an hour before the Australian Open began a well-placed bomb. Plus, the program was filled with shocking, OMG sensationalism.

The sky seemed to be falling. The BBC said “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.” They asserted that “tennis has been rocked by [match-fixing] revelations…Tonight, File on 4 reveals the full inside story, linking top players to suspected match-fixers.”

But they didn’t – not by a long shot. However, the broadcast shook up the tennis universe. Never mind that many insisted the report was journalistic garbage. Still, the respected Mary Joe Fernandez said there was a “black shadow over the game.” Pat McEnroe asserted, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. This is a major, major wake-up call for the world of tennis.”

Only Andy Murray stepped up to say that it was hypocritical for tennis to have so many sponsorships with gambling companies, including a $70 million deal with the ITF; a German tournament that’s called the Bet-at-Home Open; and the Australian Open, which has an alliance with the William Hill betting company. Nonetheless, officials have said it was good that tennis has cozy relationships with big betting companies. Go figure.

On the other hand, the BBC program didn’t come close to producing a smoking gun. Still, it put gambling in the spotlight and today the simmering embers of the story ignited on three different fronts.

In Sydney, a player pleaded guilty to match-fixing. A lengthy, high-profile New York Times article reported on a suspicious first round Australian Open mixed doubles match which drew a huge number of bets, and an article in Australia’s Financial Review claimed the “lucky loser” system in tennis was possibly used to ill-effect by gamblers.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Nick Lindahl, a former Aussie pro, just pleaded guilty in a Sydney court to a corrupt betting charge. Lindahl reached the finals of the 2006 Aussie Open boys’ championships, was ranked as high as No. 187, and once beat Sam Querrey. He was accused Monday of offering to tank a match at the Toowoomba Futures Six tournament on September 11th, 2013 so that friends and a former player could win thousands of dollars. Police said Lindahl, 27, told two friends and they placed bets. Police became suspicious and suspended betting when a large number of wagers flooded in. Lindahl plans to fight charges that he encouraged a friend to dispose of computer data and a phone app that contained data about bets that were placed. The hearing will continue.

The New York Times’ Ben Rothenberg reported that, due to fears of match fixing, a gambling website stopped betting Sunday on an Aussie Open mixed doubles match. Large sums were bet on an obscure first-round contest between Spaniards Lara Arruabarrena and David Marrero and the favored team of Czech Andrea Hlavackova and Pole Lukasz Kubot. Suspicion was triggered when almost all the bets were for the Czech-Polish duo, who went on to win easily, 6-0, 6-3. Arruabarrena, who is No. 33 in women’s doubles, and Marrero, who is No. 32 in men’s doubles, denied the match was fixed. According to the Times, Pinnacle’s traders stopped betting 13 hours before the match. The Times noted that Marrero, who won the 2013 ATP World Tour Finals, has lost his last 10 mixed doubles matches. “Normally,” he told the Times, “When I play, I play full power. But when I see the lady in front of me, I feel my hand wants to play, but my head says, ‘Be careful.’ This is not a good combination.” Observers felt Marrero played especially poorly, hitting a soft lob to Hlavackova and failing to return her serve three times in a row. The Times referred to sources who said that four of Marrero’s men’s doubles matches and three of his Grand Slam mixed doubles matches had been suspected of irregularities.

Hlavackova did report that the Tennis Integrity Unit had asked to talk with her, but she refused to say for how long. The Czech added that it was uncomfortable “to have people think that we didn’t win the match on our terms. We played our best…and we won, so it’s not comfortable to be questioned if someone else is not playing one hundred percent.”

In a related development, an article in Sydney’s Financial Review suggested that tennis’ obscure “lucky loser” system could be abused, with some ease, for match-fixing. When a player in the qualifying tournament knows they will be assured of getting a place in the main draw, it doesn’t matter whether they win or lose the last match in the qualifying tournament. And that can lead to match-fixing or prize money sharing.

The Financial Review also noted a tweet by Richard Ings, who set up the sport’s first investigative unit. Ings contended, “Tennis is not a sport which denies match-fixing is a threat. But the scale of the threat requires significantly more resources…

“Match-fixing in tennis is the sporting equivalent of insider trading,” said Ings. “It involves individuals or parties seeking to gain access to information about the physical condition or motivation of players before they compete…When such useful information is known exclusively to an individual or syndicate it can be very easily used on betting opportunities where they are virtually guaranteed to make big profits.”

The Financial Review also noted, “The ranking system can be a problem. Players on the men’s tour are ranked by their best 18 tournaments of the year, which means that poor performances won’t cost them in the rankings. A tennis executive said this can also be ripe for exploitation.”

So now the gambling beat goes on. For whatever reasons, the issue is no longer an afterthought. The media and observers alike will be looking for wrongdoing or hopefully proposing moves so that a great sport retains what is most important – its integrity.