The 2016 tennis season kicked off at the Australian Open this week, but unfortunately Serena Williams’ good form, Rafael Nadal’s shocking loss, and Lleyton Hewitt’s farewell haven’t been the stories making waves in the mainstream media. Instead, the world is talking about a dark side of tennis: match-fixing.
Just before the first serve was hit Down Under, BuzzFeed News and the BBC released an investigation alleging that tennis has a serious match-fixing problem, and that the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) — an anti-corruption group founded in 2008 by the sport’s governing bodies — has been actively looking the other way.
The report alleges that 16 players who have been ranked in the top 50 over the past decade have been involved in match-fixing, including eight players in this year’s Australian Open, and “winners of singles and doubles titles at Grand Slams.”
CREDIT: Shuji Kajiyama, AP
The allegations focused primarily on a 2007 match between former top-five player Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo Arguello, which had such suspicious betting patterns that a prominent betting company voided all the transactions on the match. And despite having access to a plethora of leaked documents and intensive data analysis, BuzzFeed and BBC did not name any other names in the report.
For those close to the sport, none of this is earth-shattering: Rumors of tennis match-fixing have been around for decades, long before the infamous 2007 Davydenko match. Tennis is a very popular sport for gamblers, with matches happening nearly every day all around the world. And tennis is arguably the easiest sport to fix — after all, it only takes one person. Plus, it’s incredibly difficult to prove a match fix; a player can have a bad day, or put in suboptimal effort for a variety of reasons without committing a crime.
So while it’s important to take these allegations seriously, it’s also crucial to talk about match-fixing with caution. Rampant speculation, outrage over gambling company sponsorships, and allegations of tanking are all distractions from the real issues at play. Match-fixing is a symptom of tennis’ real problems, not a cause.
What this scandal really brings to light is an appalling lack of communication and transparency by those in charge of the sport, a disregard for player safety, and the egregious prize money discrepancies that plague both men’s and women’s tennis.
Lack of Transparency
In 2013, Marin Cilic pulled out of Wimbledon before his second-round match. The reason cited was a left knee injury. However, it later came to light that Cilic withdrew from the match because he had just been notified that he failed a drug test at an earlier tournament in Munich.
Cilic, who claimed the failed drug test was due to the extra glucose in a supplement his mother bought for him, was suspended from the tour for nine months, and then came back to win the U.S. Open in 2014. But the governing bodies of tennis never did explain why the Croat was allowed to cite an injury for a withdrawal when a failed drug test was the real reason.
Andre Agassi failed a drug test because of crystal meth in 1997, but the public only found out when the former star wrote about it in his 2009 autobiography.
Those glaring omissions are fairly common in tennis, where the concepts of transparency and accountability often feel abstract. That’s why it’s not a surprise that source after source claim that the TIU has looked the other way when it comes to match fixing.
“[I]t’s like a secret in the tour that everyone knows but we don’t talk about it, we just see it and keep walking. You know who is doing it and who is not,” Frank, an anonymous former tour pro and current coach, told BBC Radio on Tuesday when asked about the match-fixing scandal.
“If they really want to stop betting in the pro circuit they’d stop it today. [The TIU] knows exactly who is doing it and how. It’s super easy. It’s super easy. They just don’t want to do it.”
While you might be inclined to take an anonymous former player’s comments with a grain of salt, Scott Ferguson, the former head of education at Betfair, told Jon Wertheim something similar in Sports Illustrated.
“There have been lengthy lists of suspicious matches handed to tennis authorities in the past, with many common names appearing time and time again, and it’s the same old story,” Ferguson said. “Zero response or action from the Tennis Integrity Unit (or perhaps they have done plenty and found nothing—but with their magic cone of silence, we really don’t know and just have to assume they have done nothing).”
All of this echoes what BuzzFeed News and BBC reported originally: That bookmakers have repeatedly warned the TIU about suspicious matches, but often receive no response or follow-up.
It’s hard enough to believe that the TIU can do its job with just two investigators working full-time in such a global sport. It’s tempting to be skeptical when the only players caught and banned for match fixing are players who are ranked so low that many tennis fanatics haven’t even heard of them. And it’s pretty much mandatory to be suspicious of a governing body that has covered up wrongdoings — such as the aforementioned failed drug tests — in the past.
Ferguson told SI that the TIU will not be taken seriously until it communicates more openly with players and the public, and until the TIU is taken more seriously, there’s no way to have faith that corruption in tennis is a thing of the past.
Firstly, the TIU cannot be silent. Silence in a governing/investigative body in 2016 is not an option. They should be asking questions of players every day. They don’t have to be public with the details, but they can announce “We are investigating 11 matches from January and will be seeking further information from the players involved”—generic stuff that makes us think they are actually doing something! If players actually see and hear something being done, then these players who have been marked as repeat offenders might actually stop. If you put your toe in the water and nobody even noticed, why wouldn’t you try again? And again and again and get bolder and bolder.
Tennis players aren’t often viewed as the struggling rank-and-file, but the truth is that outside of the top 100, it’s increasingly difficult to make a living playing the sport.
“There’s no way that No. 400 in the world … can make a living out of this,” Frank told the BBC.
Take Igor Sijsling, a Dutch player currently ranked No. 150 in the world. Last year, Sijsling earned just under $200,000. And while that sounds like a good amount of money at first, tennis is an individual sport, meaning it’s primarily self-funded. Players have to pay for their own coaches, physios, and travel. There’s no such thing as guaranteed money. There’s no contract to protect you if you get injured and can’t play.
Because of the lack of security, it’s easy to see why players might be tempted to go on court when they’re less than 100 percent and give suboptimal effort even just for the minimal prize money given to early-round losers. And it’s even easier to see how they would be tempted to take a huge sum of money — some reports have gamblers offering up to $200,000 for one match — in order to lose on purpose.
Of course, nobody is suggesting that a guy like Sijsling should be making as much as, say, Djokovic is making. However, tennis needs to work on increasing money on the lower-level circuits so that players can actually earn a living wage.
Things have improved a little bit, thanks to players like Roger Federer calling for more money in the lower levels of the sport, but there is a long way to go. Between 2000 and 2014, for instance, the prize money at the Grand Slams nearly doubled. It stayed exactly the same at the lower levels.
“Why are we paying millions of dollars for first prize at a Slam when losing R1 at a futures event might be fifty bucks on a good week and the TIU is hopelessly under-resourced?” Ferguson asked. “Priorities are in the wrong place.”
Indeed, as long as tennis continues to offer such paltry prizes for the rank-and-file players, the sport is going to continue to be rife with corruption.
Speaking of the rank-and-file, an interesting point surfaced when the match-fixing scandal broke open this week — it doesn’t take much for bribes from gamblers to turn into threats.
Not the craziest question I've ever heard https://t.co/DgI4CR0Xwg
— andyroddick (@andyroddick) January 19, 2016
It’s a real concern that these gamblers are getting access to players, be it on tournament sites, where Frank said that he often saw transactions take place, or in player hotels, where an anonymous Spanish tennis coach told the BBC his player was approached.
“The players are threatened,” the coach said. “They say, be careful with your family, coach, friend.”
“The betting offers, they are really dangerous,” Daniel Koellerer, one of the few ATP players who has been banned for life for match-fixing, said.
This is an extension of regular threats that tennis players receive from gamblers through social media on the men’s and women’s sides, and it exposes how vulnerable players are to abuse.
“German star Angelique Kerber received death threats at Wimbledon a few years back, so too American Varvara Lepchenko, who was told she would die if she did not lose her opening match,” The Australian reported.
So while it’s tempting to spend time speculating about players who might have been involved in match-fixing and getting rid of the bad seeds, it’s also crucial to step back and look at the bigger picture: Most tennis players are under an intense amount of pressure, not only to win and take advantage of a relatively short career, but to stay safe and financially sound in a sport where corruption has historically been overlooked and buried. A focus on fixing the latter would certainly help mitigate the former.