Tennis and Gambling – A Dark Shadow Over Our Sport

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2016 Australian Open - Day 10 : News Photo

GAMBLING AND TENNIS

Bill Simons

I adore tennis. It’s my life. This special report, based on my five-part series on gambling on insidetennis.com, has been challenging. I agree with Chris Evert who confided, “I’ve been so sad…Hopefully the truth will come out.” The integrity of the game is at stake. My hope is that all those who love tennis will reflect on this perplexing narrative.

A 10-Step Program to Deal With Tennis’ Gambling Problem

1. Forget PR spin. Get real. Be transparent.

2. Speak up. Make noise. Create a sense of urgency and a culture of compliance.

3. Fill the two remaining slots on that highlty touted Independent Review Board with fierce truth-tellers or relentless investigators from outside the sport with no skin in the game.

4. Deal with the severe imbalance in prize money. Top players gain unsparing riches. Wannabes get spare change. What a shock – they’re tempted.

5. Get out of bed with betting houses. Forget those huge commercial deals. It sends a terrible message. There have to be other ways to access their data.

6. Go high-tech. Scrub the data. Study every match that’s played. Use advanced analytics to detect patterns. Go for the bad guys – the syndicate gamblers.

7. Create a truth and reconciliation component, so any past wrongdoers could speak out with little fear.

8. Discard the “too-big-to-fail” or “too-hard-to-deal with” mindset. Could it really be that no top player has ever manipulated a match?

9. Expand education immediately for all players, fans and the media.

10. If you’re really interested in cleaning house, tidy up on other issues like tanking, appearance fees and the ranking and lucky loser systems.

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“Gotcha!”

 A bold piece of gonzo journalism by a venerable media institution and a new media site punched tennis in the gut. Just an hour before the start of the Australian Open, the BBC and Buzzfeed announced they’d be broadcasting a sensational story on tennis and gambling.

Tennis shook!

When the show aired, BBC was in high-hype mode, claiming – almost with glee – that tennis had “been rocked by revelations on suspected match-fixing in the sport, including several matches at Wimbledon. Tonight…[we] reveal the full inside story, linking top players to suspected match-fixers.”

Bam!

The sudden emergence of a tennis gambling scandal, “really casts a very dark shadow on our sport right now,” said Mary Joe Fernandez.

But the inside story was hardly revealed. BBC stated that, “a whistleblower 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.”

ATP Chief Chris Kermode alerted us, this is a “toxic environment for sport.”

BBC said they had damning documents, “and what’s amazing is actually seeing some of these things in writing…it’s amazingly powerful.”

Virtually every sport has had serious ethical free-falls. FIFA has been blasted by a bribery scandal. Baseball’s steroid era was devastating. Gambling is interwined with the NFL, where there were $14 billion in illegal bets on the 2016 Super Bowl. Cycling had Lance Armstrong, college basketball had its point-shaving scandal, and there’s a whole genre of grainy Hollywood movies about thrown boxing bouts.

But tennis – such a seemingly pristine game – is especially vulnerable. Alas, the game has long been navigating a slippery ethical slope. Historian Bud Collins noted that tennis, “began in dishonesty and hasn’t outgrown it.” Before the Open Era the system was known as “shamateurism” when, in the absence of prize money, cash was passed “under the table.” There are highly controversial claims that the game’s most celebrated match – the 1973 Billie Jean vs. Bobby Riggs “Battle of the Sexes” – was rigged by Riggs and gamblers.

In 2008, Ted Forstmann, a top management executive, admitted to betting on sports, tennis and big matches his clients were playing. In Melbourne, Novak Djokovic just confided that in 2007 his people were approached with a $200,000 offer for him to throw a match in Russia. Also in 2007, a match-fixing scandal relating to gambling syndicates and an inexplicable loss by Nikolay Davydenko stirred waves. But Etienne de Villiers, then the ATP CEO, said, “What we see now is not a problem. There isn’t a corruption problem in tennis.” But the French Tennis boss Christian Bimes insisted that gambling is “a dreadful disease that’s a threat worldwide. We have to act straightaway.” The Tennis Integrity Unit was then formed, but had only two investigators.

In today’s game, huge, often secretive appearance fees open the door to suspect play, and tanking is widely condoned.

Worse yet, as longtime tennis enforcement executive Richard Ings noted, “If you were to invent a sport that was tailor-made for match-fixing, the sport that you’d invent would be called tennis. It doesn’t take much to throw a match.” It’s an international, one-on-one, high-profile, almost year-long sport that crosses many cultures and ethical mindsets. It’s fiercely Darwinian and, considering all the costs, roughly only the top 100 make a living. The talent margins are miniscule. Plus, with the sophisticated high-tech nature of gambling in today’s instant message world, there’s no need to throw a match – a double fault here or there will do. There are dozens of ways to gamble on the game – syndicates are savvy. One typical practice is for a strongly favored player to go down a set and a break. The odds now spike. Certainly now the underdog will win. Bets pour in. But “miraculously” the favorite comes back to win, and big money is made. Who knew?

After horse racing and soccer, tennis is the third most popular international sport for legal betting. Now, tennis is indulging in a lucrative bromance with betting houses. Never mind that the No. 129 player in the world is told to not even think about gambling, the ATP, WTA, the ITF and some of the slams now have pricey deals with Betway, Betfair, and William Hill. Gambling signage is in your face. There’s Federer, walking in front of William Hill’s logos. The ATP’s Hamburg tournament is the Bet-at-Home Open. Televised tennis in Europe and Australia is crowded with gambling ads, and the ITF has a whopping, five-year, $70 million deal with the Swiss betting outfit Sportradar. The deal dwarfs the $5 million annual deal the NFL has – and baseball’s $3.5 million pact. “It’s rare that tennis outstrips football or baseball,” joked a press room sage, “but in this case, we sure did.”

The game’s key organizations are cultivating and empowering the gambling industry. Tennis’ message is clear. It’s just fine to gamble on the game – “bet at home,” and for that matter, mid-match – no problemo.

No wonder top officials circled their wagons in anticipation of the BBC broadcast. The program’s tease said there were at least eight current or former top 50 players who’d been repeatedly flagged for possible match-fixing or suspicious betting and who’d be competing at this year’s Aussie Open. Supposedly, 26,000 matches had been analyzed, there were a million computer simulations and endless algorithms. As the smoke of suspicion swirled, an “official statement of integrity” was issued. And the Australian Open found itself in the unflattering position of hosting a press conference on match-fixing during the first day of the tournament.

Sure enough, the BBC displayed Dennis Koellerer, a former Austrian pro who reported that he was offered up to $50,000 to fix matches in Moscow, India and Paris; that lower-ranked players are most often targeted, and that there was frequent locker-room chatter about match-fixing – the practice, he said, is “an open secret.” The only problem was that Koellerer was tossed out of tennis for match-fixing in 2011.

The BBC breathlessly provided almost decade-old news of how 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.”

One player, Argentinian Martin Vassallo Arguello, and a Sicilian gambler reportedly exchanged 82 texts before a match, which netted the Sicilian $350,000. And, in case we needed to know, we were told gamblers are tough guys: “These were not people to be messed with.”

The BBC also noted that the European Sports Security Association flagged more than 50 suspicious matches in 2015 and claimed that tennis has more questionable gambling activity than any other sport, but, they insisted, “nothing will be done.”

The report had incredibly troubling comments on process, and plenty of sizzle. But there wasn’t much steak. For all their bluster, no names were named. There was no smoking gun.

Without blinking, the BBC confessed, “we’ve decided not to [name the players], because without access to their…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…passed directly to them.”

Our first thought: “Thanks for nothing.” No current top player was implicated (although later, there would be a quickly dismissed swipe at Lleyton Hewitt). Russian tennis boss Shamil Tarpischev, said the dust-up was just BBC’s “personal promotion…which we shouldn’t react to.” France’s Giles Simon called the report, “useless…a bomb…[with] not much inside.”

But PR expert Jon Bernstein, noted that “public perception right now is that there’s fire somewhere behind the smoke, and that’s…the default [position] until proven otherwise.”

In 2013 columnist Patrick Hruby addressed the specter of tennis gambling. He wrote, “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…Besides, 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.”

Exactly. But wait, here’s a newsflash. Sensationalist, almost fact-free, journalism creates sensations, and ultimately the BBC’s ambush journalism touched a considerable nerve and opened a festering can of worms. Okay, the report didn’t name names, but make no mistake about it, it did point to lots of disturbing problems. The broadcast raised a red flag. Tennis got a yellow card. A stream of troubling issues quickly bubbled to the surface.

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In Sydney, Nick Lindahl, who was once ranked No. 187, pled guilty to match-fixing at a small 2013 Australian tournament and then added, “That’s what tennis players do.” There soon was talk of a long-ignored 2011 report by the Swedish paper Svenska Dagbladet which published the names of 41 players who allegedly were under scrutiny for match-fixing.

The New York Times reported that the gambling website Pinnacle stopped betting on an Aussie Open match because huge, one-sided sums were bet on a first round contest between Spaniards Lara Arruabarrena and David Marrero and the favored team of Andrea Hlavackova and Lukasz Kubot. Suspicion was triggered when almost all the bets were for the Czech-Polish duo who went on to win easily. The Spaniards denied the lopsided match was fixed.

Sydney’s Financial Review suggested that tennis’ obscure “lucky loser” protocol could easily be abused. They also noted that “the ranking system is a problem,” since ATP players are ranked by their best 18 tournaments of the year, which means that poor performances basically don’t mean much. It’s a system that invites trouble.

Richard Ings, who ran tennis’ first anti-corruption program, put the problem in perspective, saying that, “Match-fixing is the sporting equivalent of insider trading,” which can lead to “betting opportunities that are virtually guaranteed to make big profits.”

Officials repeatedly made the common sense point that the sport’s integrity was everything – and that perception was key.

So IT mentioned to players and officials that the International Tennis Federation is making $70 million from a gambling house, but the No. 137 player can’t make a penny. “Why,” we asked,”can’t tennis announce that it will now send a clear message and no longer accept money from betting companies?” Maria Sharapova and Novak Djokovic dismissed the idea, and Roger Federer punted. He said it’s super-important to keep tennis clean, but there’s a lot of money involved, and gambling’s everywhere in the world. “This is a question more for people in suits than a guy in a track suit.”

A couple of voices did protest tennis’ we can profit from gambling, but you can’t stance. Andy Murray said it was “a bit hypocritical” and Martina Navratilova said, “We’re being a bit two-faced.”

But, in insidetennis.com’s exclusive interview with Dave Haggerty, the ITF Chairman, he said, “All those gambling sponsorships are within the rules of the TIU…In many ways these gambling companies are able to help us.”

Other tennis and gambling executives repeatedly offered similar self-serving comments about how good it was that the tennis and gambling industry were profiting from each other by claiming that the betting companies were part of the solution, not the problem.

The ATP’s Chris Kermode echoed the “it’s fine having the fox guarding the hen house” spin. It’s in the interest of the gambling industry, he said, “that there isn’t corruption, right? So they’re as strong as we are…[in] getting rid of corruption.”

Michael Mewshaw wasn’t so sure. The critic mused, “So the ITF, 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.”

Now, fine grain details of thousands of obscure matches are instantly spread across the globe. And, in part because of the importance of instant data, the Guardian revealed in February that a full year ago Kazakhstan umpire Kirilll Parfenov had been secretly been banned for life for what’s call “courtsiding.” Allegedly he delayed inputting point data for a minute enabling gamblers to pounce and profit. Four other umps were suspended pending investigations, and Croatian umpire Denis Pitner was suspended for 12 months for tampering. Incredibly, the moves were only revealed to a small number of tournament directors and federations, and Pitner actually worked tournaments – including the US Open and Doha in January – long after being suspended and despite being on a “No Credentials” list.

New rules have just been put in place to prevent such secrecy. But get this: members of the British Parliament are considering calling for an investigation and the Guardian’s stunning revelation reinforces a powerful narrative in the much maligned BBC piece that the Tennis Integrity Unit is vastly underfunded, understaffed, uncooperative and highly secretive.

Scott Ferguson, a former Betfair executive, said there is a constant flow of information from wagering firms to authorities, but little happens. He told Sports Illustrated that “the ATP/TIU seem to be following the same sporting body handbook as cycling, athletics, soccer: Deny, deny, deny, then claim it’s all rampant speculation with no basis.”

Another Betfair official, Mark Phillips, said the ATP “basically told us that they didn’t need our help, and they basically weren’t interested when we flagged matches and sent then information.”

Richard Ings added, “There’s a lot of frustration…There’s a cone of silence about what the TIU actually does. None of these players ever get caught, even though the same names may come up time and time again. They could at least…say they are investigating 10 matches…and give the appearance of doing something…We don’t know what it’s investigating, and when it does find violations, the information that’s disclosed is so minimal we really can’t get a handle on exactly how it’s operating.”

Ben Gunn, a former investigator for the British Horse Racing Authority, said we need a TIU “with teeth,” claimed the ATP was resistant to strong investigations, and revealed that the TIU sent him an email saying that by his “sending them information about players they could end up being sued.”

Another alarming signal was also sent by the head of the oddly named Swiss anti-match-fixing group Federbet. Francesco Baranca said there needs to be a change. “The only possibility I have is to go to the police, because the tennis authority…has not the skill, the power, [and] maybe has not the chance to investigate so deeply.”

Chris Eaton, of the International Center for Sport Security, told the New York Times that, “There is now a regular litany of integrity breaches in tennis and the progressive vulnerability…of these breaches has been enhanced…by the resource-deprived, policy-shackled nature of the secretive Tennis Integrity Unit.”

As the Australian Open wound down, officials finally wound up. Tennis’ key groups announced the formation of an Independent Review Board to investigate the TIU and corruption in the game. The panel would be headed by the veteran British lawyer Adam Lewis.

Great! The seemingly bold move was widely praised. But then it was revealed that it might take a year to get a report and Michael Mewshaw served up some scathing skepticism.

“We’ve moved in a matter of days from ATP Chief Chris Kermode’s adamant denial that anything’s wrong with the TIU to what now appears to be a major review. Does this represent a change of heart or is it a PR move? In politics and corporate life, the appointment of a 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.’ Nothing gets achieved. One has only to flash back to 2008 and the inauguration of the TIU to see the same sort of soaring annnouncement about its independence and diligence, blah, blah, blah.”

Ouch!

Plus, Adam Lewis has been viewed as a kind of hired gun, an inside-the-beltway operative who has represented a wide range of tennis and soccer groups including FIFA, as well as prominent tennis suppliers, agencies and broadcasting rights holders. And he was Richard Gasquet’s lawyer in the Frenchman’s infamous cocaine case when he got off by saying he tested positive because he kissed a woman.

Some wondered whether the now powerful Lewis could really bring the fresh, fierce investigative vigor, the unrelentingly “let-the-chips-fall-where-they may” mindset that’s so badly needed.

Let’s hope so. After all, 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.”