The sports world, traditionally a refuge from the harsh realities of politics and business, continues to be sullied. After the crisis of corruption in the ruling football organization FIFA and the Russian state-sponsored athletic doping scandal, the pristine world of tennis has been rocked by allegations of match-fixing. The usually reliable BBC with BuzzFeed published an article asserting that the names of 16 players who have been ranked in the top 50 worldwide were sent to the Tennis Integrity Unit for investigation. “Gambling syndicates in Russia and Italy have made hundreds of thousands of pounds placing highly suspicious bets on scores of matches – including at Wimbledon and the French Open,” the article stated.
The players included Grand Slam champions and eight players currently participating in the first Grand Slam event of 2016, the Australian Open. For the moment, no names have been revealed. As Swiss star Roger Federer commented: “I would love to hear names, then at least it’s concrete stuff and you can actually debate about it. 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? It’s so all over the place. It’s nonsense to answer something that is pure speculation. It’s super serious and it’s super important to maintain the integrity of our sport,” Federer added. “So how high up does it go? The higher it goes, the more surprised I would be.”
Marc Rosset, Swiss tennis singles Olympic Champion in 1992 and current tv commentator, echoed Federer’s skepticism: “I observe, for the moment, that these are only allegations. No names have been given, no facts established. It is difficult to make a judgment. One would like proof now.” As for the allegations concerning Wimbledon, Rosset said: “There are often surprises there,” implying that the grass courts, unfamiliar to most non-British players, have been the scene of many upsets. Losses can, however, be based solely on injury or lethargy.
The chief executive of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), Chris Kermode, speaking for the various governing bodies, refuted the article’s conclusions: “The Tennis Integrity Unit (T.I.U.) and the tennis authorities absolutely reject any suggestion that evidence of fixing has been suppressed for any reason or isn’t being thoroughly investigated.”
The traditional world of tennis has come a long way from its elitist origins. From men wearing long white trousers to Swiss star Stan Wawrinka’s plaid shorts or fluo outfit, from “naughty” Gussie Moran’s frilly lace panties at the 1949 Wimbledon to designer outfits on all top-ranked players, from amateurs to the professional open era, the evolution of tennis from just a sport to entertainment and to big business is significant. Federer is listed by Forbes magazine as the number two of world’s highest paid athletes and has almost $100 million in career earnings outside endorsements.
And with that evolution to big money has come possible corruption. To cheat at a team sport is difficult; one player cannot make all the difference, the most notable exception being the eight White Sox players accused of intentionally losing games in the 1919 baseball World Series. To cheat in tennis is easier; one player can throw a match. On-line betting on tennis matches is easily available. Ironically, one of the major sponsors of the Australian Open is the on-line betting firm William Hill, a policy found “hypocritical” by British star Andy Murray.
There have been previous episodes of suspected cheating, but mostly among lower ranked players. Nikolay Davydenko, ex No. 3, was thought to have thrown a match in Poland in 2007, but only six “unknowns” have been banned for life. The ATP is certainly aware of the danger, having established the T.I.U. in 2008 with an annual budget of $2 million, to watch fluctuations in gambling odds on matches, and even to observe suspicious people during matches who might be transmitting scores in real time before they are officially posted on websites.
Federer, who has been extremely vocal in calling for more stringent controls of doping in tennis, summarized his vision of sports as follows: “Why do people come to watches football matches, tennis or other sports? They watch because they do not know what will happen and who will win. That is the beauty of sports and that’s what we must fight for.” Easy to say for someone who has earned over $100 million? More difficult for those who are struggling to eke out a living.
The sport of tennis has changed dramatically since it became professionalized in 1968. Before, only amateurs were allowed to compete in sanctioned tournaments. Players were only allowed to accept travel expenses and eventually accommodation. Some players, like Pancho Gonzales, self-taught and arrested for burglary when he was 15, barnstormed on professional tours after successful amateur careers in order to earn a living. Outstanding Swiss players of the amateur era like Mathias Werren were never able to earn a living from playing tennis and finished their careers as teaching pros, something Federer or Wawrinka will never do.
Politicians cheat; fact checks are necessary after their pronouncements to establish veracity and watchdog agencies are necessary to follow the flow of money. Business people cheat; controls are routinely put in place to audit. Should sports figures be different? We watch sporting events for the thrill of the moment, for the beauty of the action, for the unknown results. Federer is right. But in our interconnected world, can we really expect tennis players to be that different?