The professional tennis match-fixing allegations. What do they tell us about corruption in the sport?

The professional tennis match-fixing allegations. What do they tell us about corruption in the sport?

 On Tuesday 19 January, File on 4, a BBC Radio current affairs programme, revealed details of an BBC/Buzzfeed investigation into allegations of match-fixing in professional tennis, a story that had been trailed the previous days across global media outlets. The crux of the allegations was that sixteen players who had been ranked in the top 50 were suspected of taking part in fixed matches. Two of the suspects were alleged to be Grand Slam doubles winners. Almost as serious as the claims that senior players might have been involved in match-fixing was the suggestion that the tennis authorities had been given the details of those players but had suppressed the information. It is an allegation that the ATP, the men’s tour organising body, vigorously denies.

In this blog I focus on two aspects of the claims in order to analyse them in terms of what we know already about match-fixing in general. First, I look at a notorious match between Nikolay Davidenko and Martin Vassalo Arguello in 2007, asking how the way the fix is alleged to have taken place compares to what we know about how fixing is actually achieved. Second, I consider the sums of money that players claim to be offered to fix games and ask whether these sums add up in practice. It should be noted that there have already been questions raised elsewhere about the programme’s over-reliance of suspicious betting patterns as a sole indicator of match-fixing. In short, betting irregularities on their own do not prove a fix has taken place.

The starting point of the investigation into match-fixing in professional tennis was the 4th round match of a tournament in August 2007 in Sopot, Poland, between the Russian, Nikolay Davydenko, then the world number 4, and the much more lowly Argentinian, Martin Vassalo Arguello. It was game that Davydenko should have won easily but all the big money, more than £3 million with Betfair alone, was going on Arguello. Even when Davydenko was leading by one set, the bets, from a few accounts in Russia, kept coming on for Arguello. When Davydenko retired hurt in the third set, thus forfeiting the match, Betfair took the drastic step of voiding the bets and repaid the stakes due to their suspicions of fraud.

What should we make of this incident and what it says about match-fixing? As I see it, the incident is a big surprise in the way it played out and smacks of an amateur operation, if indeed there was any actual fix at all, something Davydenko denies, and for which an internal tennis investigation found no firm evidence. Firstly, tennis is an easy game to fix without resorting to retiring hurt. Its unique competitive structure means that a player is still in with a chance to win a match until the final point is won. Games that ebb and flow dramatically within the space of a few points are essential to the appeal of tennis as a sport. It is perfect for fixing as a player can be one set and a break (or more) up but still go on to lose the match. It is this pattern that the BBC programme exposed as most likely to attract suspicious bets, but which the betting monitoring systems that bookmakers deploy are adept at identifying. In the Sopot incident, perhaps the gamblers were unaware of the monitoring systems because it is naive to bet so heavily on the lower player to win as such bets will inevitably raise suspicions. More sophisticated fixers ensure that the weaker player loses the game, betting heavily on the favourite, as this would be a more normal bet. Fixers value certainty of outcome above all else. The price is of secondary concern.

Another priority for fixers is to be able to place bets in a way that does not arouse suspicions. For that to happen, they need to be able to hide their money among the rest of the punters cash. Unusually large sums going on the weaker player simply does not add up. A possible explanation may be that they were able to persuade (by threat, bribe or other means) Davydenko, but not Aguello, to lose the match and so this was their only course of action in this case. The great thing about tennis from the fixer’s point of view is that you only need to persuade one person to lose the game and your fix is on. Compare that to football where multiple people normally need to be involved and we can see how tennis is a prime target for fixers. But, according to the BBC investigation, it is Arguello who they claim to have voicemail recordings from his phone that allegedly link him to other possible fixed matches. All in all the Sopot incident is a strange one that raises more questions than it answers and does not fit well into a more expected pattern of match-fixing. My instinct is that it was simply a crude and unsophisticated attempt at a fix and perhaps that is why it was identified in the first place, as a more successful fix would not have been so easily spotted.

A further interesting revelation from the programme was the amount of money that players claim to have been offered to fix a match. Or more pertinently, the disparity of offers that have been made. Before the programme had aired, World Number One, Novak Djokovic maintained that he had been offered £110,000 to fix a match ten years ago. In the programme, banned Austrian player, Daniel Koellerer stated he had been offered between $50,000 (approx £35,000) and $100,000 (approx £70,000) to throw matches. One way to assess if these figures ring true is to compare them to the amounts of profits that are said to accrue from fixing. The programme stated that a Russian group of gamblers won £250,000 from 5 games, while a Sicilian group won £650,000 from 12 games and a group from north Italy won the same amount from 28 fixed games.

If the profit figures are accurate then $50,000 – $200,000 (approx £35,000 – £140,000) to fix just one game would seem excessive. A number of possible explanations spring to mind. It could be that those being offered the bribe are exaggerating the amounts for some reason – perhaps to burnish their honesty credentials as they insist they turned it down without a second thought. Or, it could be that the offer was a lure by the fixer to attempt to corrupt the player who would find that the actual amount paid was significantly less, because once he is corrupted he is under the strict control of the gamblers to fix future games. Either way, these figures stand in stark contrast to the €2000 (approx £1500) that a Spanish former player and coach, who wanted to remain anonymous, claimed was offered to one of his players to fix a match.  The coach was also keen to emphasise that fixers try to create a climate of fear around players to do their bidding. Of course, if a fixer can obtain the result he wants without having to pay a player or official then that is the most profitable outcome.

If we take a known case of match-fixing in another sport, cricket, as an example, we might be able to make sense of these divergent claims. In the notorious case of the January 2000 Test match against England at Centurion Park, South African captain, Hansie Cronje persuaded his English opponents to take part in a fifth day contest by forfeiting an innings each after the middle three days of the Test had been washed out. According to Cronje’s testimony to the King Commission into corruption in cricket he was offered 500,000 Rand (approx £50,000) and a gift of his choice to fix the result. Having delivered the fix he was actually paid 50,000 Rand (approx £5,000) and a leather jacket. The Cronje case suggests that the high sums alleged to be offered to Djokovic and Koellerer are probably no more than lures to draw a player in with promises of wealth that will not materialise. The €2000 mentioned by the Spanish coach are probably a truer reflection of the likely return that a player could expect on single fixed match in an ordinary tournament where the betting market would not be large enough to conceal large sums of money.

Related to the possible sums of money on offer to fix games, is the earnings of those players. While those at the very top of tennis are all multi-millionaires, it is not necessary to go too far down the ladder to see how earnings fall off very quickly below the elite group. Take the case of the current world number 200, MIchal Przysiezny, who reached a highest ranking of 57 in 2014. After turning pro in 2001 his career earnings over the past fifteen years have amounted to $1,250,000 (approx £870,000), or about £55,000 per year. Given that average expenses for a player on the ATP tour amount to over £100,000 per year, the economics are plain to see: earning a living simply by playing tennis is hard to do. Such circumstances are ripe for exploitation by fixers who claim to offer easy money to those struggling to get by. Addressing the inequity of rewards in tennis should be a priority for the tennis authorities. It is an objective that some players at the top, including Roger Federer, believe is necessary to protect the game from corruption.

The allegations concerning match-fixing in tennis are serious, and it is true there have been many rumours circulating around the game for a number of years. However, without more compelling evidence to show that fixes have definitely taken place that go beyond mere suspicious patterns of betting and anecdotal stories from players as to how much they were offered to throw games, we should remain cautious before drawing firm conclusions as to the extent of corruption in the game. But caution should not be read as complacency and the tennis governing bodies, who have been accused of paying insufficient attention to the potential problem of fixing in the sport, should now ensure that resources are prioritised to protect a sport that captivates its followers through its compelling gladiatorial competitive structure.