How do you watch a sport when many of its top stars are suspected to be cheats and fixers; when you believe every error to be scripted and every achievement fixed in advance by a betting syndicate?
Tennis is in the middle of one such crisis of credibility.
Leaked files from anti-corruption investigators suggest several Tennis players, including winners of Grand Slams, may have been bought out by betting syndicates during the past decade.
According to the BBC and Buzzfeed, match-fixing has been rampant in tennis. 'Over the last decade 16 players who have ranked in the top 50 have been repeatedly flagged to the tennis integrity unit over suspicions they have thrown matches. All of the players, including winners of Grand Slam titles, were allowed to continue competing', the report said.
The report alleges that, instead of taking action against players flagged for corruption, tennis authorities tried to cover up the charges and allowed the main suspects to continue competing in major tournaments.
Eight of them are part of the Australian Open that begins today (January 18).
According to the BBC, documents revealed that betting syndicates in Russia, northern Italy and Sicily made hundreds of thousands of pounds, betting on games investigators thought to be fixed. Three of these games were at Wimbledon. Players who allegedly participated were paid amounts in excess of $50,000.
Though players suspected of selling out to betting mafia have not been named in the report, the nature of the allegations puts the entire tennis pantheon under a cloud.
Since 2007, tennis has been dominated by just a handful of players. Most of the Grand Slams have been won by an elite group of players ranked among the top 10. (You can see the list here). If some of them, as the report suggests, were acting out a script on the court, the game is in a mess.
Prima facie, like any other individual sport, it's easier to fix a tennis match. In a closely fought game, all you need to swing the outcome is a double fault at a crucial stage or a wayward stroke, a trick masquerading as an unforced error.
And then there is money. Tennis is the only individual sport that has a truly worldwide following, its stars a global appeal. A Roger Federer, a Maria Sharapova or a Rafael Nadal would have followers (and thus people willing to bet) in any part of the world compared to champions from other sports like a Lin Dan, a Lee Chong Wei or a Saina Nehwal.
So, tennis is an easy target for fixers. But it isn't the only one. Over the past few years, almost every popular sport has been under the betting cloud.
In the late 90s, several reports had linked cricketers with the betting mafia, leading to the suspension of former Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin and his South African counterpart Hansie Cronje.
Since it emerged in cricket, the genie of corruption has claimed several careers, the most recent and famous victims being Mohammad Amir (on his way to redeem himself having made a comeback recently), Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif.
In football, corruption recently claimed FIFA chief Sepp Blatter and UEFA chief and former French icon Michel Platini were banned recently for eight years, indicating that the sport suffers from deep-seated corruption. There is also the ongoing doping scandal engulfing the world of Athletics, pushing IAAF to the brink and resulting in a blanket ban for Russian athletes.
Before that, the sport was rocked by the 2013 English football match fixing scandal and corruption in Brazil clubs that involved players, administrators and bookies.
And of course, there is the Indian Premier League.
According to Transparency International, corruption in sport has many forms. Referees and players can take bribes to fix matches. Club owners can demand kickbacks for player transfers. Companies and governments can rig bids for construction contracts. Organised crime is behind many of the betting scandals that have dented sport’s reputation. And money laundering is widespread.
This can take place through sponsorship and advertising arrangements. Or it may be through the purchase of clubs, players and image rights. Complex techniques are used to launder money through football and other sports. These include cross-border transfers, tax havens and front companies.
As the IPL betting scandal probed by the Justice Mudgal Committee had shown, corruption thrives in sports primarily with the connivance of administrators and stake-holders. When, instead of nipping the malaise in the bud, the administrators also become a part of the racket, corruption becomes widespread and its perpetrators thrive without fear of getting caught or punishment.
The current crisis in tennis also appears to be a result of cover-ups and administrative negligence if not connivance. When 16 of the top players are suspected of throwing away games, when some of the game's Grand Slam winners are allegedly corrupt and the administrators choose to just ignore it for a decade, the entire institution of tennis becomes a farce, a fraud perpetrated on fans and followers.
Now that the scam has exploded in the world's face, only a thorough probe would be able to restore the credibility of the tennis and its stars.
Otherwise, instead of love all, in the mind of the fan the score would remain stuck at suspect all.