A Billion-Dollar Racket
Betting on tennis is a big business; just ask the fixers
Posted: Tuesday September 4, 2007 5:27PM; Updated: Wednesday September 5, 2007 9:56AM
Early this past March, on the eve of a men's Masters Series tennis tournament at Indian Wells, Calif., the phone rang in Dmitry Tursunov's hotel room. "Would you like to make some money?" the caller asked. It wasn't the first time the 27th-ranked Russian had been asked that question in that particular way. In the fall of 2006, Tursunov was contacted by an unknown voice offering cash for match fixing. "It happened to a lot of players," he said. "I don't know if it's the same person, but I think everybody gets contacted. And whether you act on it or not, it's a problem."
And you thought tennis's biggest headaches were sagging TV ratings and goofy outfits. Still reeling from suspicious betting patterns surrounding an Aug. 2 match involving its No. 4 player, Nikolay Davydenko, the sport has found its American showcase, the U.S. Open, dominated by a scandal in the making. New signs in the locker room state the USTA's zero-tolerance policy against betting; personnel from a hurriedly hired security firm monitor the players lounge. American player Paul Goldstein told USA Today that he'd been contacted by gambling interests. Lleyton Hewitt said France's Michael Llodra had also, and the French newspaper L'Equipe reported that two unnamed players admitted the same. Last week, No. 56 Janko Tipsarevic told SI that he, too, has fended off gamblers seeking an edge, leaving the impression of a tour under quiet and slimy siege. "[Gambling] was the elephant in the room," said ATP president Etienne de Villiers. "So the elephant has finally come out."
Tipsarevic says he was approached by strangers "maybe a couple of times, but before they even say the price, how much, I say, 'Please, please, please,' and then they leave me alone. Normally it's a guy you've seen for the first time in your life. He says, 'Hi, how are you?' And then, 'I have an offer for you.'"
In a sense this should come as no shock: Especially outside the U.S., gambling on tennis is a booming business. At Betfair, the largest online bookmaker in England, tennis is the third-most-popular sport (behind horse racing and soccer) and the fastest growing. Betfair expects to take in $1 billion in bets on this year's U.S. Open -- up 50% from last year. Last month Betfair canceled all bets on a match between Davydenko and Argentine Martín Vassallo Argüello in Sopot, Poland, after seeing a tenfold spike in betting -- with most bets going against Davydenko after he won the first set. Davydenko retired from the match in the third set due to a foot injury. A week later he was playing in Montreal. (He proclaimed his innocence and is expected to talk to tour investigators later this month.)
But long before l'affaire Davydenko, tennis was ripe for a betting scandal. Players operate independently, beyond the prying eyes of teammates or team staff. A five-set match can easily turn on one slightly shanked backhand or the sudden onset of cramps. The Australian Open has betting windows on-site, bookmakers work a short walk from Wimbledon's grounds, and one of the sport's most storied matches -- the 1973 Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs -- is still dogged by rumors that Riggs, a longtime hustler, made a bundle by betting on King.
Ever since the rise in Internet betting threw the result of a 2003 match between future pro poker player Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Fernando Vicente into question, tennis has tried to build what ATP officials call "a wall" around the game. Yet every player represents a potential entry point. Both Tursunov and Tipsarevic said that they didn't report their suspicious conversations to ATP officials. Their attitude isn't rare. Odd as it seems, the same players who complain about thieves in the Wimbledon locker room haven't been nearly as panicked about their integrity. "I can say, 'Somebody called me,'?" Tursunov said, "but what are they going to do?"
On Friday, de Villiers announced that the ATP board would push for a rule stipulating that players must report even the slightest whiff of attempted tampering or face penalties. The organization had better do more than push, though. Anytime you have billions being bet on human beings, corruption is a given. Without the players' full commitment here, tennis doesn't stand a chance.