Monday, January 18, 2016

We Still Need Answers from Tennis Brass

Has the last “clean” sport been dirtied?

BBC and the online news site BuzzFeed purport to have obtained documents containing “evidence of widespread suspected match-fixing at the top level of world tennis, including at Wimbledon”

Despite having documents, the report names no names.  Tennis players, after all, can afford very good lawyers.

“Over the last decade,”the BBC reported, “16 players who have ranked in the top 50 have been repeatedly flagged to the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) over suspicions they have thrown matches.” None of the players was disciplined.

The TIU was set up to police tennis, which has been largely free of the doping and behavioral scandals that have afflicted football, soccer, baseball, basketball, bicycling, track and field and others sports. The BBC/BuzzFeed stories refer back to 2007, when tennis officials looked into fixing allegations regarding a match between Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo Arguello.  The Association of Tennis Professionals investigated and, in 2008, said it found no evidence of wrongdoing by Davydenko, his opponent, or anyone else associated with their match in Sopot, Poland, on Aug. 2, 2007.  However, neither Davydenko nor his family — rumored to have unsavory associations with a major Russian sports betting syndicate — was cooperative with the ATP investigators.  Requested cell phone records were not made available and were later destroyed.

The latest reports from BBC/BuzzFeed seem to rehash a lot of what came out in the ATP investigation.  The world’s No. 1 ranked player, Novak Djokovic of Serbia, this week affirmed what he had previously disclosed — that an effort was made to bribe him to throw a match earlier in his career.  The contact was through a member of his support team.  He said it was immediately rejected and “never got to me.” Roger Federer, the sport’s Mr. Clean, called for names to be made public so that “we would have something concrete to debate.”

The BBC/BuzzFeed reports said that eight players entered in the current Australian Open tournament were named in the documents they received.  But those names were not made public.

At a hastily-called news conference there, senior tennis administrators denied that any evidence has been suppressed regarding match-fixing suspicions.

As a lifelong player and fan of the game, I hope they are telling the truth.  But then, I hoped Lance Armstrong was telling the truth when, after recovering from cancer, he won more bicycling championships than anyone in the world.  Think how that ended.

At the very top of the sport, tennis players would seem bribe-proof. What can you offer billionaires as inducement to throw a match?  But at lower levels, where betting is big-time, a hundred thousand is a lot of cash.  It costs a helluva lot to identify, train and bring up a world-class tennis player.  National foundations help when a youngster is good enough, but when you’re traveling around playing in qualifying tournaments with $20,000 pots for the entire field, perhaps living in a Volkswagen van and eating beans, who’s to know if you tank a set here and there for 50,000 dirty dollars from some gambling crook?

Most of the betting on tennis these days is perfectly legal, as it was in London in 1939 when Bobby Riggs won a bundle betting on himself to win the singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles at Wimbledon.  But legal betting does not guarantee honest bettors. Gamblers have famously fixed events in other sports. Baseball, after all, banned Pete Rose for life for betting on himself.

The high officials’ statement at the Australian Open has not buried this thing.  We need answers to Federer’s questions: “Was it the player? Was it the support team? Who was it? Was it before? Was it a doubles player, a singles player? Which Slam?"

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