With many of the top sports mired in negative controversy the last few weeks – NFL’s Michael Vick indicted in connection with dog fighting, an NBA ref was busted for taking part in a betting ring, baseball continuing ongoing steroid battle as Barry Bonds chases the most revered record in sports, and then of course the Tour de France drug scandals – tennis was out in the clear, looking good and sitting pretty basking in the summer sunshine.
Well, not anymore.
Just when you think that criminal interests cannot impact tennis, it does, or at least there’s suspicion to believe it did yesterday in Sopot. While It may not be as damaging as the aforementioned scandals, it’s not a pretty picture.
The bookmaker, Betfair, says it spotted irregular betting patterns in the match yesterday involving Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo Arguello, which Davydenko lost in the third set retiring with a foot injury.
Davydenko was the heavy favorite going into the match but he slowly became the underdog despite winning the first set 6-2.
With over $7 million wagered on the match according to Betfair and the fact that large bets were being placed on Arguello even as he was losing, Betfair was prompted to take a closer look and suspend any payouts from the match and notify the ATP as part of its investigation.
At issue, just why the heck was big money being placed on Arguello even as he was losing? Clearly someone knew something.
The English paper The Guardian spoke to a Betfair “punter” who had this to say on the matter: “It has become increasingly obvious recently that there are a significant number of ‘fixed’ tennis matches being played. It is obvious to anyone with some experience of the normal Betfair market behaviour and the appropriate odds for a tennis match that certain low-level ATP matches are being fixed, with corresponding irrational market patterns.”
So does tennis have a wide-spread betting problem? Let’s hope not, but I think it would be naïve to think that it 100% doesn’t exist or hasn’t happed before, especially at lower level, under the radar type events like Sopot.
And if does happen it figures to be in a match like Davydenko-Arguello and not in big events or late rounds at Slams when there’s more of a public eye.
How could it work? Simple. I’m just speculating of course, but what if a top seed was offered three times the prize money that he would make for winning the title at a small event, provided he lost a certain early round match to a heavy underdog.
If the top seed agrees to take the dive, the criminal organization bets big on the underdog, makes that money back and then some, and pays out the seed for carrying out his/her end of the deal.
Of course there’s the issue of missed ranking points for the player – there’s no price on those, right? – but for top players the points in the smaller tournaments may not make much of an impact in the overall rankings.
That’s just one of many possible scenarios so you can see where it could be enticing. In the case of Sopot (again, I’m just speculating), if you were a top player and were offered $250,000 or more to lose in the second round vs. the $80,000 you could win at most for taking the title, maybe you give it a look.
Has this actually happened before? Probably, but I can’t prove it of course. And i doubt it happens a lot (i hope!). And we’ll likely never know the truth to what happened in that Davydenko-Arguello match. Though the temptation is there.
Contrary to popular belief, tennis players do not make that much money, especially when compared to other sports. Outside of the top names – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick, Maria Sharapova the Williams sisters and a few others – earning major dollars on the tennis circuit can be a tough go.
Davydenko last year earned just over $2 million, a great payday for folks like us, but for the number three ranked player in a major international sport that’s not a lot (it’s the same as the #32 golfer on the PGA tour, Tim Clark, made last year). And don’t think that fact isn’t lost on Davydenko – who struggles to get even a major clothing sponsor – or on other players.
So maybe some players do look to make a little extra cash on the side. (And i’m not saying Davydenko did it!)
Fact is, and I’m not here to knock Davydenko or tennis, but the temptation to cross the lines is there and will likely always be there in not only tennis but in all sports when you have criminal interests mixing with young, star athletes. Tennis, however, might lend itself better to such manipulation than team sports in that you only need to get to one player to impact or “fix” an outcome.
And it doesn’t help when you hear of players spending off-court time at card table casinos, or see them holding poker chips in a US Open commercial, or listening to ex-coaches on TV talk of where they might place a wager if they could. That doesn’t make them guilty in any way, but you can see that the gambling culture is there.
But fixing the outcome of a sporting contest, be it in tennis or any other sport, is a serious issue. It asks the question, “is what we are watching real or is it just fake entertainment.” The NBA has been dealing with that the last few weeks. Now, unfortunately, so too is tennis.
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