Australian Open 2016: Fixing tennis, and how badly is it broken?

Long-time mutterings about the prevalence of match-fixing are now firmly back out in the public domain. Photo: IStockWhen the match-fixing bomb was dropped from a hemisphere away on Australian Open eve, the strongest reverberations were inevitably destined for Melbourne Park. On the morning of the first day of the grand slam year, as officials scrambled to finalise their united response to the BBC/Buzzfeed allegations, there was talk of little else.

Not outside, where the game was still the focus, but among those aware of the full report, or alerted by social and digital media that something scandalous was afoot. By the time ATP executive chairman and president Chris Kermode led a solemn delegation of the sport’s most senior officials into the bright lights of the interview theatrette soon after noon, the media crowd was almost spilling out the door.

Yet while Kermode kept stressing that in its investigations, the Tennis Integrity Unit has to find “evidence as opposed to information, suspicion, or hearsay”, one did not need to have read all 9000 online words to be left with the impression that something is on the nose. The fact that substantial new information appeared to be slightly lacking, and names certainly were, does not mean there will not be a stain left on the game.

On the players, for starters. Eight of the great unnamed are apparently playing here this fortnight. So take a guess. Any guess. A core group of 16 is under the most suspicion.

Part of Kermode’s response was that the reports “mainly refer to events from about 10 years ago” – which is true, given how much time and space was devoted to the detail of the notorious 2007 match in Sopot between Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo Arguello – and his promise that “we will investigate any new information, and we always do”.

No charges arose from the Sopot scandal, despite a year-long investigation the ATP boss said failed to unearth sufficient evidence. But the admission that “investigators hit a brick wall and it just wasn’t possible to determine who the guilty party was in relation to this match” acknowledges that there was one.

There are others. There must be. ATP figures show that there are nearly 21,000 active professional players and over 2100 officials involved in over 1500 tournaments, and so, like in anything, there will always be a percentage of bad eggs. The issue is, how big/small/smelly? Back in 2007, Andy Murray was among the players who spoke out about the vulnerability of the circuit’s paupers to the temptation of a healthy payday, but also of the difficulties of proving who had succumbed.

The question of whether there are sufficient resources allocated to driving match-fixers from the game is one worth asking, given that the Tennis Integrity Unit has a full-time staff of just five and relies so heavily on information from players and betting companies. Officials insist that whatever help has been requested has been forthcoming, but this is a wealthy international sport, and whatever is needed must be spent on catching those who fall prey to the gambling syndicates and are tempted to transgress. One suspects that, in the future, a few more dollars will be found.

In fact, it is tempting to say you can bet on it, for the sideline issue is that of tournaments welcoming betting companies as corporate backers, including Betway as the sponsor of the Davis and Fed cups, and William Hill as a new Australian Open partner.

Yes, as Kermode was at pains to stress, sports betting is a legal activity. Intelligence-sharing is essential, but can still be done without official ties to the tournaments themselves. Would it change anything in a practical sense? Probably not. And although tennis clearly wants a cut of the betting billions, any official association is just a very bad look.

So long-time mutterings about the prevalence of match-fixing are now firmly back out in the public domain.While not terribly much seemed new or revelatory, the Tennis Integrity Unit has taken a bit of a beating for its alleged toothlessness, and there was plenty else that was food for thought.

The ATP meanwhile, is staunch in its assertions that corruption is neither widespread nor systematic, but that a threat exists which is being taken extremely seriously. Kermode acknowledges such stories are “clearly damaging to the reputation of our sport”, and on a frantic Monday morning that hijacked the start to the Australian Open there was a simple tweet from Murray sharing the link to the Buzzfeed version of a story that had everyone talking. The fact there will be more to come? That will be short odds-on.

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