As its first major tournament of the year starts, tennis has been rocked by major allegations of match-fixing at the elite level. Disturbingly, we have been down this murky road far too often in sports but tennis, dubbed the “gentleman’s sport”, had yet to be greatly implicated despite some infamous allegations previously.
But that has suddenly changed, as tennis’ reputation is now being muddied with participants in the current Australian Open, unfortunately, shrouded in scepticism after an explosive bombshell from BuzzFeed UK and the BBC.
The joint investigation has overshadowed the Australian Open’s opening day, and thrown the grandiose sport into turmoil. The report details major match-fixing evidence in tennis, sensationally headlined by “winners of singles and doubles titles at Grand Slam tournaments”.
The report alleges 16 players, who have been ranked in the top 50, were flagged to the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) over suspicions of thrown matches during the last decade. Damningly, it further alleges some of these players are currently competing in the Australian Open.
Perhaps owing to strict libel laws in the UK, where journalists have less protection than their US counterparts, none of the suspected cheats have been named. In that sense, for some, the clout of the allegations are futile. Perhaps accordingly, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) has rejected any allegation of match-fixing, although says it will investigate new claims.
The joint report does however thoroughly detailhighly suspicious betting patterns in a 2007 match between Nikolay Davydenko, a Russian player ranked number four at the time, and Martín Vassallo Arguello. The two players were cleared of violating any rules, although BuzzFeed and BBC claimed Arguello exchanged 82 text messages with the suspected ringleader of an Italian gambling syndicate.
It resulted in an apparent wide-sweeping investigation and the creation of the TIU. However, little has seemingly been done, with only unknown players being charged in the ensuing years. There has been no major player implicated, fuelling suggestions of cover ups by authorities and resulting in many believing the TIU is little more than a “toothless tiger”.
Suggestively, men’s world number two Andy Murray tweeted the article unaccompanied by words; he had made his point revealingly. Reading between the lines, the worrying issue has been uncomfortably percolating within the ranks.
We have seen the sordid mess of match-fixing affect numerous sports, notably cricket over the last two decades. It has been a long time since sports lost its purity, but these types of allegations leave a nasty and festering taste for fans.
For many years, it was hard to watch Pakistan play cricket without thinking something sinister was happening in front of our eyes. Every spectacular batting collapse or bizarre performance was met dubiously. Over time, the scepticism has somewhat alleviated but the nagging pessimism, lingering from the stains of infamy, remains.
Unfortunately, but inevitably, once perception has been smeared it is hard to win back the unwavering trust from cynical fans beaten down by seeing their sport drowning in sordidness.
Perhaps after seeing so many sports spiral due to scandal, tennis authorities willingly did not do enough, as BuzzFeed and the BBC imply. This is inexcusable if it is the case. Simply, there is a nasty undercurrent brewing and drastic action needs to be taken before it descends further.
Nothing in the murky world of corporate sport really surprises anymore, so these tennis allegations were hardly earth shattering. It is easy to see why tennis has been targeted by the underworld, being one of the world’s most popular sports and played in all parts of the globe. The ATP’s global audience was believed to be around 900 million last year.
When you think of tennis, you instantly think of the Federers and the Serenas who double as some of the richest and most famous athletes in the world. But for many on the circuit, tennis is a grind, not just physically and mentally but also financially.
The report even spoke about how paltry the prize money at lesser tournaments can be paltry, and that "a year on the tennis tour can set a player back more than £100,000, making it tempting to cash in on the occasional fix."
It is not excusable, but it is fathomable how some could be tempted in earning lucrative sums of money by nefarious means.
Unlike team sports, tennis matches are seemingly easier to manipulate, as they involve just two players and there are so many innocuous tournaments being played all over the world. A crooked player could seemingly feign an injury or merely look “uninterested” without raising too many alarms.
Or so we thought.
Now, after these revelations, the Australian Open is likely to be stymied by innuendo and cynicism. Players are going to be looked at suspiciously, exacerbated in this era of social media where open slander is commonplace. It is an unfortunate and unfair position for the overwhelming majority of clean players participating in the tournament.
But this stench of alleged corruption will continue to linger so long as tennis authorities continue to stand idly by. More revelations will surface, and you can sense the shadows of investigative journalists looming over players and support staff on the tennis circuit.
For tennis, the underbelly of match-fixing allegations is only set to get seedier.