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Recent allegations concerning top-level tennis highlight a growing market in corruption that goes hand in hand with a rise in online gambling. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Inside corrupt sports betting

It was never meant to happen to tennis. At least, that’s how the romantic and naive had it. Tennis was civilised, uniquely immune to cupidity and cartels. But a recent joint investigation between the BBC and BuzzFeed uncovered internal Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) documents that reveal long-private suspicions about match-fixing in the sport. Specifically, the documents recorded fears that a number of games on the professional circuit had been targeted by corrupt gambling syndicates – but the association was quick to assert that the suspicions were not proof of corruption. 

The timing couldn’t have been worse – the news broke just as the Australian Open began in Melbourne. Then, just days later, The New York Times splashed with an exclusive – a betting agency had suspended bets placed upon a mixed doubles match at the Open after a surge of suspicious money. The next day, Nick Lindahl, a former Australian professional, pleaded guilty to match-fixing in a New South Wales court. “Mr Lindahl advised two other people,” the police prosecutor told the court, “that he was going to tank the tennis match, or lose the tennis match, and, in providing that information to those people, they were able to place bets to advantage themselves.” 

In December 2014, Lindahl’s friend – a former player and tennis coach, Matthew Fox – pleaded guilty to using “corrupt conduct information”. Fox had taken Lindahl’s tip that he was throwing a match, and bet accordingly. In the same hearing, Fox pleaded guilty to the trafficking of cocaine. Things began to unravel for him when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, derailing his professional career. I reached Fox for comment, but he declined, telling me he wanted to “move on”. 

At the grand slam, players were now being quizzed about match-fixing at their post-match conferences. The men’s top player, Novak Djokovic, admitted to being approached by bookmakers in Russia in 2007. “I was not approached directly. Well… I was approached through people that were working with me at that time, that were with my team. Of course, we threw it away right away. It didn’t even get to me, the guy that was trying to talk to me, he didn’t even get to me directly. There was nothing out of it. Unfortunately there were some, in those times, those days, rumours, some talks, some people were going around.

“It made me feel terrible because I don’t want to be anyhow linked to this. Somebody may call it an opportunity. For me, that’s an act of unsportsmanship. A crime in sport, honestly. I don’t support it. I think there is no room for it in any sport, especially in tennis.”

But Djokovic, like many players, dismissed most of the reports as “speculation”. Retired grand slam winner, Goran Ivanišević, was defiant. “There is no evidence. We are talking about algorithms and mathematics and some computer spits your name out like a serial killer and everyone is chasing you,” he told reporters this week. “You need proof. Show me that somebody did something wrong, then I will believe you.” 

Declan Hill had no doubts. There are few men alive who know more about sports corruption than Hill. An Oxford graduate, Hill has published many books on the topic. His journalistic investigations have focused on gambling syndicates and the mafia, and he has collected a number of enemies along the way. “There have been secret reports for a number of years now,” Hill tells me, “about systemic match-fixing in tennis going back generations. There’s no doubt it’s been happening. Players have long swapped favours, frequently, for literally generations.”

Hill has seen the secret reports that form the basis of this week’s allegations. He tells me that within them, tennis officials muse on the vulnerability of their sport. “The ATP executives are talking among themselves, and they’re saying that if they had to design a sport that was very easy to fix, that they couldn’t do any better than tennis.”

For a start, singles tennis doesn’t require a conspiracy among teammates. It’s much easier to fix a solo sport than a team one. And Hill tells me that while he’s risked his life reporting on corruption, and received plenty of “pushback”, the resistance isn’t always from criminals. It arises simply from the magical thinking of sports fans and patriots. “I can’t recall how many times I’ve heard from someone of some nationality things like – ‘Look, China might be corrupt, but it doesn’t happen here in South Korea.’ Or a Singaporean telling me that their country was clean, but that Malaysian corruption wouldn’t surprise them.”

Hill explains that many people are incapable of thinking that their country – or their sport – might contain corruption, but are happy to concede it occurs elsewhere. Many of us design these odd exclusion zones, and zealously defend them. Each sport attracts its partisans. Recall the support for Lance Armstrong, say, or Essendon Football Club. Hill says tennis fans are particularly defensive, but that corruption in the sport is systemic. “Certainly tennis has had a massive problem,” he says, “for a while.” 

Internet revolution

The past decade has seen a near-exponential growth in international gambling markets – both legal and not. “Just as the internet has revolutionised things – journalism, say, or music and travel,” Hill says, “it’s transformed sports gambling.”

Courtesy of smartphones, each of us has a betting agency with us at all times. But there’s little price elasticity with online gambling, and little product differentiation between companies – which means advertising is crucial. In the past few years, Australia has experienced a saturation of it – ironically, the major sponsor of this year’s Australian Open is betting agency William Hill. According to the Australian Gambling Research Centre (AGRC), there were 528 individual sports betting advertisements played more than 20,000 times on free-to-air television in 2012. The number was greater for pay TV. That was four years ago – since then, it has increased. The centre also states that between 2010 and 2012, the value of sports-betting television advertising quadrupled. 

It’s having an effect. The Gambling Treatment Clinic at the University of Sydney has experienced a fourfold increase in the people it counselled between 2006-07 and 2010-11, and these days notes that the number of 18- to 24-year-olds – an age bracket that once offered only a negligible number of problem gamblers – had increased dramatically. 

It’s not surprising. The betting agencies target young men. The commercials typically feature female models, and offer sports betting as a profitable substitute for the athleticism you admire but lack. A fan’s intelligence – passionately ubiquitous, but rarely trustworthy – can become a skill itself. The advertisements often present young and healthy lads, smilingly entwined in a camaraderie that’s bolstered by gambling on the sports they’ve congregated to see. “Advertising typically depicts gambling as an exciting, glamorous and attainable lifestyle promising easy financial and social rewards,” a 2014 AGRC report noted. “Gambling is often portrayed as a routine, everyday activity and it is increasingly likened to sport.

“Many young men consider sports-embedded betting promotions as unavoidable, unnecessary and aggressive, sending a dangerous message about the social acceptance of gambling and its normalised association with being a sports fan. Peer pressure to gamble has reportedly increased among young men, as friendship groups have regular discussions about sports betting odds. University students who watch more gambling-sponsored sports broadcasts were found to be more likely to use the sponsors’ products, especially students who already have gambling problems.” 

This hyper-charged environment has flamed sports corruption. “What’s happened in the past 10 years,” Declan Hill tells me, “is that gasoline has been poured upon global betting markets. Many, many billions of dollars are flowing around the globe. It’s the biggest issue in sport, and it’s entirely threatening many sports’ credibility. I’ll tell you this: I spoke recently with someone from an illegal gambling syndicate, and these guys are worth five times the value of Adidas. It’s huge.” 

That credibility is jeopardised further by what Hill calls “cheating to lose”. “There’s cheating to win – so, doping for example – and then there’s cheating to lose, throwing a match or fixing an outcome. Well, it’s much much harder to recover your sports credibility from a position of cheating to lose.” Hill suggests that doping – as bad as it is – at least implies a level of commitment and competitiveness. “Look at the Bodyline Ashes series – that was cheating but it increased interest in the sport. It was cheating to win. Cheating to lose alienates fans terribly, and we’re seeing this in certain football leagues around the world.” 

A tough tour

Brett was very good at tennis. He trained daily, grew calluses and dreamt in trigonometry. He travelled to countries he never saw, unless you count the airports and tennis courts. It was all blisters and jet lag. He had a preferred string tension and handle length – blindfolded, he could tell you if a random racquet met his requirements. He developed his own serving rituals. Bounce, bounce, flick brow, bounce. Outsiders would call it neurosis. The pros knew better. Micro rituals are a precursor to control. 

Brett knew the difference between a good shot and a winning one, and he knew he could make a lot of very good shots – but those whose names would be known around the world could make winning shots in their sleep. The difference between being excellent and elite was the difference between being a globally acclaimed millionaire and a retired suburban coach. Which is how Brett came to instruct me a few years ago. 

“I think it’s around just 10 per cent of tennis players on the circuit [who] make any money,” Hill tells me. “You quickly drop off the diving board once you’re outside the top 20. There are a few investigators who have told me that there are many players who make more money fixing matches than winning them.” 

How many of us can have our abilities so severely ranked? And then, once scored, experience being the 205th best player in a world of seven billion people and not having that fact manifest in acclaim or remuneration? Because at that level, you’re still wondering who’s paying for your flights. Excellence isn’t enough – unless it is. Unless the game sustains you. My coach was not corrupt. He was a guy who was once very good, but whose excellence didn’t translate into anything financially sustainable. There was a life lesson in that: the realisation that passion and excellence needn’t lead to riches. But it wasn’t wasted time. The discipline he developed became more broadly applicable; his athletic experience transferred to mentoring roles.

Whether we can trust that the majority of players on the pro circuit think the same is another thing, but for now, the Tennis Integrity Board has announced an independent review. “The Independent Review Panel (IRP) will review and report on the appropriateness and effectiveness of the Tennis Anti-Corruption Program and make recommendations for change,” read a statement from tennis’s administrative bodies. “In conducting the review, the IRP will take into account public commentary regarding the processes, procedures and resources of the Tennis Integrity Unit.”

Declan Hill is thinking about more substantive responses. “One hundred and twenty years ago, the Olympics were re-invented because of corruption,” he says. “I seriously think we need to consider a similarly dramatic review of today’s sports.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 30, 2016 as "Inside corrupt sports betting". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.