It’s a sport that promotes a clean-cut image but beyond allegations of match-fixing, there’s a dark underbelly behind the glitz and glamour, writes Ewan MacKenna
For those on the inside, it’s an incident that’s well known. Not so long ago, a western European player struggling to make it out of the third-tier of tennis decided an easier route would be to play a Future’s event in South America. The standard would be lower but his logic, in the face of his limited talents, was to buy his way to the ranking points. When the draw came out he offered those he was set to face $500 each to throw matches, and they all agreed. Until the final that is, when his opponent backtracked and suddenly demanded double. After an argument, the opponent asked, “What are you going to do? You can’t report me. I haven’t broken any rules, you have.” After refusing to pay extra, he was well beaten.
Is it a surprise? Absolutely not, in fact it’s almost understandable when you consider prize money on the Future’s Tour hasn’t changed in 20 or so years and the winner is deducted tax to the point victory equals $910. As one former player puts it, “You pay your own food, accommodation, travel, physio, restrings. A great week is breaking even. You’ve to win just to not lose money.”
Is such corruption isolated? No and, while far from rampant, that’s hardly the point.
But is such behaviour tackled by those who are supposed to govern tennis? That’s the troubling part for yet again we need to protect a sport from those employed to protect the sport.
A week ago the BBC and Buzzfeed broke a story, old in parts, about fixing within the game. Their investigation said that 16 men who at one time ranked in the world’s top 50, including a grand slam champion (while not guilty, the player insinuated is Lleyton Hewitt while he and seven others suspected have taken part in the ongoing Australian Open) were allowed to continue playing despite an anti-corruption unit internally raising repeated concerns about betting patterns. It also stated a report released in May 2008 recommended 28 players be investigated but nothing was done as the authorities whimpered that the rules had changed, tying their hands. But if it’s important then you always find a way; if not and you’ll find an excuse. Tennis made its choice.
Nobody is saying it’s easy to catch such behaviour for if you were to create a sport made for such fixing, tennis wouldn’t be far from perfection. And then there are other complications. For instance at Wimbledon in 2001, a friend received a tip about Wayne Ferreira. At the time chasing the record for most consecutive Grand Slam appearances, he was told to bet against the number-14 seed who had a secret injury but wanted to keep the streak going. In the end the South African showed up with a bag so he could head direct to the airport after retiring mid-first-round match. It wasn’t fixing, merely insider knowledge, but it shows the problems. Indeed there’s a far more stunning story that shows up what is essentially match fixing without match fixing.
At one stage a second-tier or Challenger Tour event became renowned for hospitality that matched top-tier competitions. It included the best hotels and the best meals but also shockingly had prostitutes shipped in with a specific instruction – to put it crudely, to keep certain players up all night. Heavy bets were then placed on their opponents while a look back at records show very random results.
Other than the lack of follow-through, the sport has to take blame for all this far more than any one player. Firstly tennis authorities created an environment with scandalously low prize money at the bottom and secondly they’ve hidden rather than tackled the problem all the way up. Instead of trying to create a culture where cheating isn’t tolerated, they created a system where it’s ignored. And it’s not like this is new. As far back as 2001, reports showed a top-10 player demanded £140,000 to play in Moscow but then announced he “wouldn’t be staying all week”, a former top-ranked player lost in seven successive first-round matches after collecting appearance fees, while a top doubles partnership threw a match to catch an earlier flight home. It’s continued on from there.
Those in the ATP will point to their Tennis Integrity Unit that was set up in 2008 after the infamous match between Nikolay Davydenko and Martín Vassallo Argüello as the favoured Russian raced into a one set lead before retiring hurt with little warning. That was a game where nine different people in his country bet $1.5m on him to lose yet an investigation saw both players cleared. Meanwhile today, go on the TIU website and alongside a mere handful of no-names they’ve caught is the following – “The TIU works on a confidential basis and makes no public comment on its work other than to confirm the outcome of an investigation that results in disciplinary action being taken.” As one coach told us, “If you spoke to 20 players, 18 won’t have heard of the TIU. They definitely aren’t prominent on scene.”
Before the names from the BBC/Buzzfeed report were leaked, that same coach said he expected the list to be rife with those from eastern Europe, Russia and South America. He was right as, of the 15 identified, two were Russian, two were from former Soviet states, four were from former eastern bloc nations while one was South American. And it’s here we get away from the poverty of the lower layers of tennis causing match-fixing, to simple social poverty as a cause.
Across the modern era of the sport, there’ve been suspicions, stories and smoke that promised fire with this new report showing betting syndicates in Russia, northern Italy and Sicily. It’s all so far from the girls-and-boys-next-door image tennis likes to promote, of clean-cut role models that fit in with the odious new-world marketing that involves building a brand regardless of morals. John McEnroe was once criticised for saying “the Russian mafia infiltrating tennis,” but other than his geography being too restrained, he wasn’t far off.
At the turn of the millennium Marat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov admitted friendship with Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, a man with suspected links to underground crime and accused of bribing figure skaters before the 2002 Olympics. The former said he didn’t “think it would be nice to talk about this today” while the latter described him as a “good friend” but would not elaborate. But there are so many other ugly tales from within the game.
Sources say one player had gunmen in his parents’ house during a match. They mention too that, as a child, a prominent player with huge talent was brought west to the United States by questionable links and questionable money. And it’s claimed a major tennis academy in eastern Europe hoovers up kids with potential in that particular nation, trains them for free but if they make it then a chunk of both career earnings and other earnings are taken by the academy owner forever. The finance for the initial investment was also questioned by those we spoke to.
Yet amidst all this, the ATP has lazily swept under the rug rather than thrown the filth into the bin. And this week the chief executive Chris Kermode missed a massive opening when responding, “I think it’s always disappointing when stories like this come out,” before the usual denials followed. With that quote, he went along with the bad-news-for-tennis theme but why is it bad? It knows it has a problem, and this offered up the chance to tackle it. Isn’t that good news?
But while excuses will always be there, opportunity won’t. And right now the time is ticking for tennis to do right after getting so much wrong.
Sunday Business Post
24 January, 2016