Tennis Still Has A Betting Integrity Problem, We’re Reminded At Wimbledon

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Wimbledon match fixing

One or more professional tennis players are under suspicion of match-fixing at Wimbledon, according to one bookmaker.

Pinnacle Sports flagged the possibility earlier this week. The large online bookmaker has suspicions about the integrity of a first-round doubles match played last week in London.

According to integrity manager Sam Gomersall, Pinnacle flagged “a series of bets from accounts with a history of wagering on suspicious matches” and notified authorities. This is a trend, as he alludes to, for a sport that has been barraged by a decade-long string of betting scandals.

The news was first reported by ABC in Australia, which could not identify the match for legal reasons. Given the details provided, though, there were only a couple candidates.

Match fixing at Wimbledon?

Tennis reporter Ben Rothenberg later confirmed the match in question, a Thursday duel between Fernando Verdasco/David Marrero and Joao Sousa/Leonardo Mayer. Late, heavy betting caused Pinnacle to raise an eyebrow. The New York Times later confirmed it as well.

Here’s Gomersall:

We would anticipate some minor odds movement in any tennis match. But the odds movement… just under an hour before it was due to start is certainly out of the ordinary.

Sousa and Mayer ended up defeating their Spanish opponents in four sets, 7-6(8), 6-4, 6-7(9), 6-1. The scoreboard shows a tightly contested match until the last one.

Tennis has an unfortunate number of fixed matches in its history, but the details make this alleged case especially troubling.

Wimbledon is one of the sport’s premier tournaments — maybe the premier tournament. Throwing a match in a tennis Grand Slam would be equivalent to, say, the New England Patriots cheating in the Super Bowl. That’s a bad example, but it should be unfathomable.

In addition, three of the four involved players are ranked in the singles top 100, including Verdasco at 34th. These are players who’ve earned small fortunes playing tennis for a living. Verdasco has won 15 titles and more than $15 million in his career.

Sports integrity investigator Mark Phillips said the losing players “have been flagged so many times” for being involved in suspicious matches. Marrero has been publicly suspected of impropriety at least twice before.

What in the world is going on?

Tennis’ recent history of trouble

The integrity of tennis is apparently under attack from one or more international gambling syndicates.

Awareness of current issues dates back to a 2008 match between fourth-ranked Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo Arguello (87th). Long story short, way too much money was bet on the match, and Davydenko retired due to injury.

Bookmaker Betfair alerted the ATP to its suspicions during the first set.

Despite what seemed to be significant evidence, the ATP’s investigation found no evidence of cheating. Nervous international tennis organizers subsequently commissioned the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) to monitor integrity and ensure fair play.

A remarkable report from BuzzFeed/BBC in 2016 reveals that the TIU proceeded to discover and dismiss reports of rampant match-fixing across all levels of tennis over a period of several years.

Leaked documents identify a “core group” of 16 players ranked in the top 50, including Grand Slam winners, repeatedly flagged for fixing. Some had been offered $50,000 or more to throw matches. None faced discipline, and all were still competing at the time of the report.

At least three Wimbledon matches were singled out as suspicious last year, too, resulting in zero sanctions. It should be said, however, that the TIU has disciplined multiple players (and umpires), with penalties ranging from suspension to lifetime ban.

There have been criminal proceedings, too. Just last month, police in Belgium arrested 13 people as part of an international probe, uncovering a Belgian-Armenian crime ring that had been fixing matches since 2014.

During one recent quarter, the TIU fielded integrity alerts for 53 of 31,281 matches played. That’s less than 0.2 percent of the total, and that percentage has been trending downward. We’re still talking about dozens of potentially tainted matches every quarter — and hundreds every year.

How easy is it to fix a tennis match?

A 2017 report from The New Daily called it “very easy” to fix tennis, quoting retired pro Paul McNamee:

It’s not that hard for a player. It’s a two-horse race, it’s not a team sport. It is very easy to throw a set or lose a service game or serve a couple of double faults and the temptations are huge.

If you’re not known, if you’re living in poverty and you’ve got nothing to lose, then guess what? You’re going to be desperate and do something stupid that you’ll regret for your whole life.

An elite player losing to an objectively inferior opponent might raise some red flags, but not all bets involve the result of the match. Bettors often wager on individual sets or even single games. Many cases of match-fixing involve players who throw a set; some retire early with a feigned injury.

Smaller matches are often un-televised and sparsely attended, making cheaters tougher to spot. The modest prize money at the lower levels makes those players especially susceptible, too. Many reportedly struggle to break even at their profession.

Richard Ings, a former ATP executive monitoring integrity, summed up how well-suited to cheating tennis is:

If you were to invent a sport that was tailor-made for match-fixing, the sport that you would invent would be called tennis. It doesn’t take much effort on a player to throw a match without the opponent or the officials or the fans or even the media being aware.

An independent review conducted this year said the sport is drowning in a “tsunami” of corruption. It surveyed around 3,200 tennis players and found that almost 500 of them had first-hand knowledge of match-fixing.

Tell me again about those integrity fees?

To restate the obvious, this is the story of a bookmaker informing a sports organization that players might have cheated during one of its top-level contests. Neither the ATP nor the TIU flagged this match as suspicious.

That’s not to say the leagues can’t — or don’t — monitor integrity. The TIU does, and other sports organizations have similar teams in place.

The PGA Tour, for example, recently launched an integrity program to monitor betting on golf. Sportradar, which provides data across multiple leagues (including the International Tennis Foundation), also provides its own integrity-monitoring services.

Frankly, though, tennis overseers don’t seem to be doing a very good job on integrity. The TIU has been trying to make the game wholesome for a decade, and it’s clearly failing.

Maybe bookmakers are better at identifying integrity concerns? Pinnacle spotted this potential case of match-fixing, after all, and it’s not the first time.

This line of thinking raises serious questions the integrity fees being sought by other professional sports leagues, like the NBA and MLB. Why would sportsbooks pay leagues to monitor the integrity of their own games? Operators are already doing most of the work for them. The ATP certainly isn’t going to pay Pinnacle a fee for disclosing its suspicions.

A conflict of interest can also arise when leagues are the ones monitoring integrity. Perhaps the only thing more important than integrity is the perception of integrity. Given what you just read about the TIU, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine a league sweeping problems under the rug to project a clean image, is it?

It seems worthwhile, then, to consider the leagues and sportsbooks as partners in integrity monitoring. If there’s a tsunami of corruption in tennis, it’s going to take a diligent team effort to root it out.