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What the match-fixing allegations mean for the sport of tennis

The tennis world was rocked by allegations that several top-50 players were involved in fixing matches and throwing games even at Wimbledon.

Wimbledon 2015

The tennis world was rocked by serious allegations of match-fixing, with a BBC investigation uncovering data that proved  “16 of the world’s top 50 ranked players” were seriously involved in match-fixing.

In the immediate aftermath of the revelations, several figures responded to the allegations – among them World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who said he had been approached in the past and found the idea of fixing despicable and Swiss Maestro Roger Federer, who expressed shock and surprise.

Chris Kermode, executive chairman of the sport’s governing body, the ATP, in a joint statement today from the ATP and WTA rubbished the allegations, which suggested that certain players had links to serious crime syndicates in Russia, Sicily and northern Italy.

No names were revealed, however, leading enthusiasts, analysts and fans to speculate as to the identities of the players involved.

Since then, young Australian player Thanasi Kokkinakis revealed he had also been approached by bookmakers.

But it is the idea of match fixing in tennis that has so far been the biggest shock to fans.

Tennis is not historically a sport that has been associated with match-fixing, which as a term immediately brings to mind the game of cricket – a sport that has been marred by several allegations over the years.

One name that immediately comes to mind is that of the late South African cricketer Hansie Cronje, who was involved in one of the biggest match-fixing scandals in cricketing history. Cronje was involved with Indian betting syndicates during the team’s tour of India – an involvement that he attempted to extend to teammates Herschelle Gibbs and Nicky Boje, who were also implicated.

Cronje had himself been initiated into fixing by another cricketer notorious for precisely that offence – Mohammad Azharuddin. Both would end up being banned from the sport as a result.

Pakistan’s 2013 fixing scandal would also rock, but not entirely surprise, the cricketing world, which, it appears, has become used and desensitized to the issue.

Corruption has also swept the world of football, most significantly of all the infamous Calciopoli.

AC Milan, Juventus and other teams in Italy’s primary football leagues, Serie A and Serie B, were implicated in 2006 of match-fixing. Instead of rigging via players, however, that league was rigged via referee selection.

Although tennis has not been historically associated with match fixing, this is not the first time allegations have found their way into the sport.

In 2007, former World No. 3 Nikolay Davydenko was at the centre of the sport’s most significant (and possibly only publicized) fixing scandal until 2016. Playing Martin Vassallo Arguello of Argentina at an ATP event in Sopot, the Russian was the favourite to win that match, with odds of 5/1. His opponent, meanwhile, was at 1/7 to win – and did, as expected, lose the first set. 

After that, however, Davydenko’s ‘injury’ played up as he lost the next set and retired in the decider.

It was later uncovered that a ring of Russian bookmakers had placed high-stakes bets on Davydenko’s loss minutes prior to his retirement – a ring following the uncovering of which the Tennis Integrity Unit was set up in 2007.

That unit could not take any action because ‘past issues’ were not legally admissible; and the issue, for all intents and purposes, was then laid to rest. Davydenko’s career continued without a hiccup too, with the Davis Cup winner retiring in late 2014.

Now, the ATP, via executive chairman Chris Kermode, have denied allegations of fixing – but of course they would – acknowledging the problem would mean also acknowledging their cognizance of the fact that the issues existed.

Although it is cricket that holds the title of the ‘Gentleman’s game,’ it is really tennis that is regarded as such. The top players in the game all live private lives that are both off the radar and appear to be spotlessly clean.

The game, too, has seen tempers and allegiances fly high with players’ performances – much like cricket has – but rarely has the shadow of players deliberately losing matches been cast.

It is extremely unlikely that the revelations, given the extremely reliable source, will be baseless. With the whopping revelations that players at the highest levels of the game are involved in throwing matches – and the report saying as many as a third are involved, names are being thrown about like confetti, with nobody sure of who in fact is involved.

And this is damaging in and of itself. A collection of the top 50 will then be tarred with the brush of having ‘fixed’ matches. In affecting the sport this deeply, these allegations have now also seriously marred how it is perceived.

No longer the squeaky clean game that it markets itself as, in tennis whites and crisp clothing, with immense talent vying for titles and taxing their skills, tennis has taken on the murky spectre so many other sports are associated with. A sport that was so far spotless has now been revealed to have the sort of seedy underbelly one associates with far more moneyed leagues and associations.

Is this then indicative that there is not enough money in tennis, or has the sport attracted bookies because there is in fact more money to be made?

As of now, factors seem to suggest the latter.

The ongoing Australian Open has big names attached to it – automakers Kia, computer giants IBM and Emirates are only some of the names associated with them – and are three among a series of Fortune 500 names associated with the tournament.

In a twist of irony given the current scene, British bookmakers William Hill are also major sponsors of the tournament. Should a firm that is part of legal betting, a firm that significant numbers use in order to conduct that service and which so obviously has a vested interest in the result of any sporting event be so closely involved with one?

As a key sponsor, William Hill will have information on the state of play ahead of time, and with this information on injuries, issues, even what may seem like the most minute of issues on court or pertaining to specific players.

These may be injury-related or otherwise, but the posession of that insider knowledge essentially does a disservice to the idea of fairness. Either everyone has access to the same information, or nobody should – thus ensuring there is no undue skewing or favouritism.

It is possible the financial backing behind these tournaments is what is attracting the bookies – but could this also be indicative that junior players are not paid enough? This is not to suggest they deliberately seek out these opportunities, but that once presented with them, they find the offer hard to refuse.

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