Match fixing: Is tennis its own worst enemy?

Sopot, Poland 2007. Nikolay Davydenko, who was ranked four in the world, was playing Martín Vassallo Argüello in the second round of a small ATP tennis tournament. A simple victory for Davydenko was expected with the Russian taking the first set 6-2. However, something was amiss. Just before the start of the match, the odds were in Arguello’s favour, even as Davydenko took the first set and lead in the second.

Millions were being bet on Arguello to win, and it soon transpired why. Davydenko retired from the match with a foot injury which led to major alarm bells ringing in tennis and betting companies. In fact, Betfair voided the match which was an unprecedented move.

This was year zero.

An extremely high-profile player involved in a match like this had never been seen in tennis before. It transpired that groups of foreign gamblers had placed a total of £3.6 million on the match, around ten times the usual amount for a match like this. This was the beginning of the fight against match fixing in tennis. It was a watershed moment.

An Environmental Review was published in 2008 in the wake of the Davydenko match. It suggested that tennis should set up its own anti-corruption body to deal with match fixing on every level of professional tennis. This was the catalyst for the creation of the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) which began under the leadership of Jeff Rees who was formerly the head of the International Cricket Council’s anti-corruption unit.

As of 2020, the TIU has grown from a team of five people to a team of 21. Since 2008, they have banned 21 players and officials for life while giving out 19 other suspensions. They are made aware of potentially suspicious activity through ‘match alerts’. These take the form of unusual betting patterns.

The TIU’s Head of Communications, Mark Harrison, said that “Each match alert is recorded, assessed and followed up by the TIU, but it must be realised that they are not proof of corruption, but an indicator of unusual circumstances.”

In 2016, Marcus Willis had the eyes of the world on him. While ranked 772 in the world, he won six rounds of qualifying to reach the first round of Wimbledon. He won to earn himself a place on centre court to play Roger Federer.

That all seems a very long time ago as I sit down to talk to him at a small tennis club in Warwick. As with many tennis players, injury has blighted his career, but he still has the hunger to compete and win matches at any level. Therefore, for someone like Willis, the thought that some players intentionally lose to increase their pay cheque is unthinkable.

We dip into the murky waters of match fixing.

Willis explains: “There was a guy who got banned for life, Sergei Krotiouk, he went up to about 25 players at one tournament asking to match fix for £2000 or £4000. It was our duty, we have to report it. If you don’t, you’re in trouble.”

Wills recalls his experience: “It took hours and hours. I thought I’d go and report it and that would be it, but I had to do a written statement. When I was in Greece, I was playing a match and they said, ‘we want to speak to you after’, I said to them, ‘I’ve told you everything there is.’ All players had to do this, and it was winding us up because you’re spending all this time helping them when you’ve just done your job, if you don’t, you get banned yourself.

“We had to go on a video link to testify in court. It was all pretty serious, you don’t know who he’s linked to, you don’t know how dodgy people are. Players are giving a lot and not getting a lot back.”

Although players have a duty to report evidence of match fixing, they aren’t always treated well for doing it by wider members of the tennis community. In 2017, Argentine player, Marco Trungelliti served as a witness in the prosecution of three Argentine players for match fixing. As a result of this, he has come under huge criticism. He got a hostile reception from Argentine tennis fans when he played a tournament in Buenos Aires in 2019 just for doing his duty as a tennis player.

This is a real problem for tennis because it dissuades other whistle-blowers from coming forward. Trungelliti himself admitted he was approached and was offered around $20,000 for Challengers, and $50,000 to $100,000 at the ATP level to fix sets or matches. A huge amount, given the huge disparity in prize money at the various levels of the sport.

Tennis commentator and journalist, David Law, commented on the situation:

“From the outside looking in, I was really impressed with Trungelliti and I applaud his bravery and his standing up for what he thought was right which was to not let this stand. It’s a murky thought that somebody might be innocent and be approached, try to do the right thing and to tell the truth and then get a really hard time for it.”

In 2016, the BBC and Buzzfeed did a thorough investigation into match fixing in tennis, specifically the Davydenko – Argüello match.

BBC journalist, Simon Cox, helped with the investigation. Speaking to him at the BBC, he said:

“Davydenko was a big name, he’d been number 4 in the world. What they (the TIU) had missed was that it was Arguello he was playing who we had named and said he was clearly corrupt, and he never responded to us.”

The two biggest problems that lead to match fixing are betting regulations and prize money. For players competing on the lower levels of professional tennis, prize money doesn’t help to fund a life of luxury, living in Monte Carlo. Instead, it’s about paying for travel and accommodation as they go from tournament to tournament.

A far cry from the over $100 million earned by each of the ‘big three’.

Cox has extensive knowledge of the subject, having investigated multiple cases. He suggested that prize money was a major factor: 

“I think the problem is at the bottom level, it’s impossible to make a living so you are totally open to corruption because at some of the Futures tournaments, as the winner, you’ve played seven rounds and you get $1,000. The most recent story I did, he was throwing matches for $2,000 but that could be in the first round, so he had $2,000 and can go off to the next tournament.”

Willis detailed that: “They just don’t put much money in it, I think if you lose first round of a challenger, it’s $300. I played first round of qualifying at an ATP event and picked up $2000, just for losing.”

Betting also plays a huge role in this because it’s the reason why players are contacted to fix in the first place. This is the area where the TIU is targeting to reduce match fixing, by reducing the live betting on 15k events on the ITF circuit over the next few years. This came at the recommendation of an independent review which was carried out into match fixing in tennis and released at the end of 2018. Also, the ability to follow live scores of matches at that level will be removed.

In the TIU’s 2019 annual review, it said that match alerts were down by 48% compared to 2018. This level of improvement can only be a positive for the future of the sport.

Cox’s solution for reducing match fixing is quite a radical one:

“It’s simple, you just need fewer players. You need fewer tournaments. That needs quite a big review to think what number of players the game can sustain. Maybe 500 rather than 1000 players. That does seem like a brutal way of looking at it. But if you have hundreds of players travelling round, making no money and generally aren’t going to make that break.”

Willis sees the solution as reducing live betting even more:

“The easiest thing to stop match fixing would be to stop selling it to betting companies, then there’s no option to match fix. But they don’t want to do that because they wouldn’t make money, so it’s their fault in my opinion. They don’t really want to stop it happening is what I think because it’s very easy, just don’t allow it to be bet on.”

The issue of prize money is difficult because that’s for the tennis governing bodies to regulate. It’s a difficult balance to strike because there needs to be incentives for players to work their way up the rankings, but the prize money can’t be so low that players can’t afford to go to tournaments which makes match fixing more attractive.

Therefore, the betting companies have to take a more active approach in monitoring activity, especially at the ITF events. Of course, it’s positive that they have begun the process, but it needs to be more.

Match fixing will always exist. The best way to reduce it significantly will be to get rid of betting and live data on all tournaments at an ITF level. 

The TIU have made a good start, but they need to be much more decisive to significantly reduce the number of match fixing cases in tennis.

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