Thursday, 21 January 2016

The ATP, tennis journalists and match-fixing - "New balls!"

Congratulations to the BBC and Buzzfeed for airing the topic. I’d always imagined it sometimes happened in matches involving some middle ranked (50-100) players - and at least one former Top 10 player - but I had no idea it was so rife. Total lack of congratulations to the Association of Tennis Professionals, whose representatives have sounded uniformly shifty and unconvincing since the story broke, and who appear to have pursued this particularly repellent form of cheating with the same degree of vigour they’ve displayed in tracking down drug cheats - i.e. none whatsoever. The problem with the current revelations is the lack of names. Until someone goes on the record and names names, together with details of peculiar betting patterns around the fishy matches which earned them a place on the list, every tennis player is a suspect - and that seems unfair. For instance, it means that, by using the phrase  “at least one former Top 10 player” above, I’ve smeared every retired Top 10 tennis player of the past 15 or so years, just as elements of the press have been picking away at the past records of Fernando Verdasco and Novak Djokovic.

The reason for picking on Verdasco is that he has a record of persistently losing the first set of matches. Of his last 29 matches to the end of the 2015 season, he won the first set a mere five times. Okay, some players take a while to get their eye in, but you’d think he or his coach would do something to address the problem. But unless someone in authority provides at least circumstantial evidence in the form of weird betting behaviour around at least some of these matches, then the media is destroying the reputation of the player who so brilliantly blasted his countryman Rafael Nadal off the court in the first round of the Australian Open - it seems a shame that this considerable feat should be overshadowed by doubts about past matches (he won the first set against Nadal, by the way).

Similarly, Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1, and potentially the greatest major title winner in the sport’s history, this week found himself being asked questions about a match at the 2007 end-of-season Paris Masters which he lost easily to the wily veteran French player, Fabrice Santoro. FFS. Djokovic was 20, he had a persistent problem with exhaustion (back then), he’d had his wisdom teeth out the previous week, and he was knackered, because the Paris Masters is right at the end of the season, and he only entered in order to pick up a bonus for playing in all nine Masters tournaments that year. And the Italian newspaper Tuttosport think that’s suspicious? I might, of course, change my tune if Russian or Italian gamblers had put a lot of money at the last moment on Djokovic to lose to a player ranker well below him - but nobody’s mentioned that. How disgraceful that a player as great as Djokovic should have his reputation besmirched on such flimsy grounds. (Of course, it could just be that Tuttosport are annoyed that Northern Italy and Sicily have been named - along with Russia - as the main sources of dodgy betting.)

The ATP commissioned a report on match-fixing, which was completed in 2008. The report named 28 players involved in suspicious matches. According to the enquiry team, their findings “were never followed up.” The ATP claims legal advice at the time suggested that past corruption offences could not be pursued. A new, stricter code was introduced in 2009. Despite that, and despite the fact that ATP received “repeated” alerts regarding about a third of the players on the original 2008 list,  no disciplinary action was taken against any of them. According to the betting investigator, Mark Phillips, who worked on the 2008 report, the evidence was “really strong” - as strong as any he’d seen in his 20 years investigating betting. According to the BBC/BuzzFeed News report, “Over the last decade, 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.”

This smells fishier than Billingsgate.

BBC and Buzzed News say they’ve chosen not to name names because they can’t access the phone records or bank account statements of the suspected cheats. But can’t the ATP do so? After all, they can turn up at sparrow fart and demand a tennis player pees into a cup - are they unable to ask the player to clear allegations against him by looking at his phone and bank records? Isn’t that a reasonable price for players to pay to take part in a major professional sport in which it’s ridiculously easy to fix matches? Or could it be that tennis is yet another sport where the players, having once been treated by the authorities like dirt, now simply have far too much power? Until we see some serious action on doping and match-fixing - with the perpetrators publicly named and shamed, I don’t see how we can reach any other conclusion. And I don’t see what’s to stop the media and punters like me smearing the reputations of entirely innocent players. But before that happens, the ATP and the lapdog “journalists” who cover tennis (“Nothing to see here - move along!”) will need to develop some intestinal fortitude - and some testicles. Past evidence would suggest this is unlikely to happen.

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