Matt Chase / BuzzFeed News
The sport’s governing bodies have been warned repeatedly about a core group of 16 players – all of whom have ranked in the top 50 – but none have faced any sanctions and more than half of them will begin playing at the Australian Open on Monday.
It has been seven years since world tennis authorities were first handed compelling evidence about a network of players suspected of fixing matches at major tournaments including Wimbledon following a landmark investigation, but all of them have been allowed to continue playing.
The investigation into men’s tennis by BuzzFeed News and the BBC is based on a cache of leaked documents from inside the sport – the Fixing Files – as well as an original analysis of the betting activity on 26,000 matches and interviews across three continents with gambling and match-fixing experts, tennis officials, and players.
The files contain detailed evidence of suspected match-fixing orchestrated by gambling syndicates in Russia and Italy, which was uncovered in the landmark 2008 probe, and which authorities subsequently shelved. “They could have got rid of a network of players that would have almost completely cleared the sport up,” said Mark Phillips, one of the investigators. “We gave them everything tied up with a nice pink bow on top and they took no action at all.”
BuzzFeed News began its investigation after devising an algorithm to analyse gambling on professional tennis matches over the past seven years. It identified 15 players who regularly lost matches in which heavily lopsided betting appeared to substantially shift the odds – a red flag for possible match-fixing.
Four players showed particularly unusual patterns, losing almost all of these red-flag matches. Given the bookmakers’ initial odds, the chances that the players would perform that badly were less than 1 in 1,000.
Tennis is the latest sport to be caught up in allegations of corruption following the scandals that have engulfed world football and athletics.
It can today be revealed:
Winners of singles and doubles titles at Grand Slam tournaments are among the core group of 16 players who have repeatedly been reported for losing games when highly suspicious bets have been placed against them.
One top-50 player competing in the Australian Open is suspected of repeatedly fixing his first set.
Players are being targeted in hotel rooms at major tournaments and offered $50,000 or more per fix by corrupt gamblers.
Gambling syndicates in Russia and Italy have made hundreds of thousands of pounds placing highly suspicious bets on scores of matches – including at Wimbledon and the French Open.
The names of more than 70 players appear on nine leaked lists of suspected fixers who have been flagged up to the tennis authorities over the past decade without being sanctioned.
Nigel Willerton, who leads the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) set up to enforce fair play following the 2008 investigation, acknowledged that authorities had drawn a line under the evidence uncovered in the 2008 probe. The leaked files show that investigators implicated 28 players in suspected fixing and urged that they face a full disciplinary investigation. But Willerton said that tennis authorities took no action against them.
He said the evidence was shelved because lawyers had advised that a new integrity code introduced in the wake of the investigation could not be enforced retrospectively. “As a result,” he said, “no new investigations into any of the players who were mentioned in the 2008 report were opened.”
Match-fixing has been explicitly outlawed by every previous version of the rules enforced by the game’s governing bodies. Moreover, since the new code took effect, tennis authorities have been warned that at least nine of the players who escaped further investigation have continued to play in suspicious matches.
Willerton insisted that the sport takes “a zero-tolerance approach to all aspects of betting-related corruption” and that “all credible information received by the TIU is analysed, assessed, and investigated by highly experienced former law-enforcement investigators.” And he pointed out that the Tennis Integrity Unit has disciplined 13 male players (all low-ranking) for fixing and banned five for life even though, Willerton said, prosecuting corruption cases is “notoriously difficult”.
“I can assure you that tennis is not treating this lightly,” said Chris Kermode, the president of the Association of Tennis Professionals, which governs the men’s game, last night. “The idea that tennis is not acting appropriately is ludicrous.”
But, as the 2016 Grand Slam season begins on Monday with the Australian Open, former integrity chiefs from within world tennis are breaking ranks to accuse the sport of failing to stamp out match-fixing.
Among them is Ben Gunn, the former police chief who led the review that recommended the formation of the integrity unit after the 2008 probe. He said the authorities had missed a “perfect opportunity” to clean up the sport and instead created a feeble and understaffed integrity unit that ignored key betting evidence. “What they did is a plastic solution which was not effective then and it’s not effective now,” he said.
Richard Ings, the former executive vice president for rules and competition at the Association of Tennis Professionals, said that match-fixing was a “regular thing” in the sport. He said the integrity unit’s response to the problem has been “very disappointing” and it is “far too secretive”.
The 2008 probe was triggered by a notorious match between the world number four, Nikolay Davydenko, a Russian, and the Argentine player Martin Vassallo Arguello, which attracted millions of pounds’ worth of highly suspicious betting triggered by accounts in Moscow.
The tennis authorities announced at the end of the investigation that they had found no evidence of rule-breaking by Vassallo Arguello or Davydenko. But the files reveal that Vassallo Arguello had exchanged 82 text messages at a previous tournament with the suspected ringleader of an Italian gambling syndicate that made hundreds of thousands of pounds betting on his other matches. Inquiries into the Russian gamblers who placed suspicious bets on Davydenko stalled when one threatened violence. These Italian and Russian gambling syndicates and another in Sicily were found to have placed suspicious bets on 72 matches involving the 28 players that the investigators flagged to the authorities.
Weeks after tennis authorities were handed the evidence, Bill Babcock, the head of the International Tennis Federation’s Grand Slam committee, declared that tennis was “healthy” and there was no corruption inside the sport. But the Fixing Files show that allegations of widespread corruption have continued to pour into the integrity unit in the years since.
The whistleblowers from inside world tennis who handed over the Fixing Files have asked to remain anonymous. But Phillips and two other investigators who conducted the probe said the evidence they found was “as strong as any evidence we’ve had” and the authorities “did nothing”.
In all, more than 20 gambling industry officials, international police detectives, and sports integrity experts told BuzzFeed News that world tennis is failing to confront a serious problem with match-fixing. BuzzFeed News and the BBC have chosen not to name the players whose matches have repeatedly been flagged for attracting highly suspicious betting, because without access to phone, bank, or computer records it is not possible to prove a link between the players and the gamblers. The integrity unit has the power to demand all that evidence from any tennis professional, yet many of the individuals whose activity attracted the most serious concern are still playing at a high level. Meanwhile, tennis has grown to a multibillion-dollar global phenomenon.
Today the secret evidence of corruption at the heart of the “gentlemen’s game” can be laid bare for the first time.
You will find the full article on Buzzfeed News & BBC.