Sunday, May 25, 2008

Match-fixing allegations in tennis

The American Tennis Association (ATP) hired a posse of former Scotland Yard detectives to help them investigate match-fixing allegations in tennis. Their 66-page report concluded that while “professional tennis is neither institutionally nor systematically corrupt, it is potentially at a crossroads. There is sufficient cause for concern about the integrity of some players and those outside tennis who seek to corrupt them.”

In other words, Houston, we have a (gambling) problem.

It all started with a match between Nikolay Davydenko of Russia and Martín Vassallo Argüello of Argentina, at the Poland Open in August 2007. Betfair, an online betting exchange, noticed betting patterns so unusual that it decided to void $7.3m (£3.5m) of bets placed on that match.

What was unusual you ask? The match – not a particularly noteworthy one by any stretch of the imagination – had received 10 times the amount of bets that Betfair typically receives on any tennis game. Over 7 million dollars was wagered on a forgettable match between the world #4 and a nobody from Argentina. Not only that, but the bets continued to pour in, in favor of the nobody, even after Davydenko had crushed him in the first set. Clearly punters were favoring the nobody to win and Davydenko to lose. But that made no sense whatsoever.

The ATP also examined Davydenko’s performance during that match and concluded that it too was unusual. You see, Davydenko lost. He lost after taking extensive and extended injury time-outs. He lost after winning the first set 6-2. He went on to lose the second set, 3-6, and then retired in the third. His excuse was that he was suffering a foot injury. The problem is that even limping on one foot with one hand tied behind his back, he should have still won that match.

Two months later, Davydenko lost at the St. Petersburg Open to Marin Cilic, a Croatian qualifier then ranked 102 in the world.

Again Davydenko easily won the first set. And then he started committing innumerable errors and throwing in uncharacteristic double faults. Belgian umpire, Jean-Philippe Dercq, concluded that something was up and fined Davydenko over $7,000. for a lack of effort.

According to an ESPN report, the suspicious betting activities of a well-known gambler named Martin Fuhrer, suggested that he may have known the outcome of some matches in advance. Fuhrer had bet that another Russian player, Irakli Labadze, would lose every match he played in 2003. Fuhrer won 100 percent of his bets. In only one of these matches was Labadze fined for lack of effort.

People started talking about a Russian mafia controlling tennis. Davydenko was asked to release his telephone records during the weeks of the tournament in Sopot to prove conclusively that he was not involved in illegal betting. He refused, apparently on the advice of his attorney that the ATP had no jurisdiction in his private life. And he is right, of course. But the refusal added to the cloud of suspicion in which he remains enveloped.

Davydenko, his hair thinning by the day, has repeatedly claimed his innocence. His wife was apparently questioned by the FBI about her husband’s ability to withstand pain (given that he had retired with a foot injury and all). His brother was also questioned. None admitted culpability.

A report by the Guardian claimed that Davydenko has argued that the heavy betting on the match in Sopot, Poland, was caused by the fact that he had lost in the opening round of three preceding tournaments (Gstaad, Amersfoort and Umag), and could therefore have been predicted to lose.

I do not understand Davydenko’s need to prove why the heavy betting had occurred. If he is innocent, he is innocent. There is no need to find explanations for the evidence that makes him look guilty. His willingness to do so only adds to the doubts that surround him. It also does not help when professional gamblers, like Britain’s Mark Bell, have stated categorically that the match was clearly fixed.

Tennis players have started coming forth with revelations of bribery. Jan Hernych, a Czech player ranked 165, said he was offered bribes to throw two matches while playing in Russia. Gilles Elseneer of Belgium disclosed he was offered over $100,000 to lose a match against Potito Starace of Italy at Wimbledon in 2005. Five Italian players have since been fined and suspended for betting on tennis. But the most sinister claim was made by Germany’s Tommy Haas who believed that he had been deliberately poisoned during a Davis Cup semi-final tie in Russia in September of 2007.

The panel investigating match-fixing in tennis has concluded that there are 45 suspicious tennis matches that merit further investigation because of the same unusual betting patterns. The report noted that bettors often seemed privy to insider information, such as whether a player was injured. [Heck that is public information – Bob Larson’s tennis site runs a “Player Injury List”]. The panel recommended that any player caught cheating should be punished by a “lengthy suspension” for a first offense. Players may receive a life ban “if the circumstances merit it”. The panel urged umpires and other sports officials to be more alert to the practice of tanking or deliberate lack of effort. But it denied the existence of any mafia.

The organizers of Roland Garros tried but failed to prevent gambling on that Grand Slam. They sued three of the big European sports betting companies in a bid to ban gambling at this year’s tournament. Their efforts are commendable, but the gambling forces are clearly more powerful. Not that that makes them the mafia.

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