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Match Fixing in Tennis

The scourge of fixing is casting a growing shadow over a number of major sports. Cricket had the Pakistan no-ball scandal and football is seeing seemingly daily revelations about players fixing matches or aspects within matches. While the issue has been very poorly reported by the mainstream media, mainly due to a complete lack of understanding of the gambling industry and betting markets on their part, there is no doubt that it is a problem across virtually every sport.

Tennis is yet to see a major fixing scandal. The closest that it has experienced was the well-documented Nikolay Davydenko against Martin Vassallo Arguello match at the Polish Open in 2008. No charges were brought, but it did bring the issue of fixing to the attention of many tennis fans.

Very few players have actually been banned from tennis for match fixing. The controversial Daniel Koellerer, who reached a lifetime best ranking of 55, was banned for life in 2011 for match fixing. Later in 2011, the Serbian David Savic, who had a best ranking of 363, was also banned for life for match fixing. Earlier this year, the Russian Sergei Krotiouk was banned for life for fixing.

Daniel Koellerer is one of the few players that have been banned for match fixing in tennis

With the exception of these three players, no player has been banned for life for fixing tennis matches. A number of players have been banned for betting on matches, although not on their own matches.

This suggests that fixing is not a real problem in tennis. This would be very wrong. At the top of the game, it may well be that fixing is not happening. For top players, the financial incentives are simply not there. And as far as many people, particularly in the media, are concerned, if it is not happening at the top of the game, then it is not a problem.

However, even at these levels, players have reported approaches in the past. Novak Djokovic has claimed that he was offered £110,000 to lose in the first round in St Petersburg in 2006. Gilles Elseneer admitted that he had been offered $140,000 to lose a first round match at Wimbledon in 2005.

It is at the lower levels of the game that the spectre of match fixing is likely to be lurking. The Challenger Tour and the ITF Futures circuit is where the problem lies. The problem has grown over the past few years and it is my view that it will continue to grow, and become more difficult to detect, in the coming years. The reason for this is the growing availability of betting options on these circuits.

Less than two years ago, some major bookmakers did not even offer betting on the Challenger Tour. Now, there are very few bookmakers that do not offer extensive markets on ITF matches. As an example, the image below shows the markets offered by Bet365, one of the leading online bookmakers, on a second round match from the men’s ITF event in Chile.

*To make it completely clear, I am not suggesting that there is anything suspicious with this match. Rather it just happened to be taking place when I was writing this article.

It is obvious to see that betting is possible on virtually every aspect of the match, ranging from the winner of the match itself to the score in the current set, from the total games in either the match or the current set to the first player to reach a certain number of games. Indeed, you can even bet on which player will win the next point.

The proliferation of betting opportunities on these matches has opened up a serious opportunity for fixing. However, it is not just the availability of betting markets that attract fixers. The real temptation springs from the inadequate funding and prize money that filters down the game from the upper echelons. Tennis fans have regularly read about how players losing in the first round of Grand Slam events feel that they do not receive an adequate share of the prize money. However, for the vast majority of professional tennis players, losing in the first round of a Grand Slam would fund them for most of the year.

The player that loses the above match in Chile will receive prize money of just $200. The players that they beat in the first round of the tournament would have taken home a cheque for $117.50. Even the winner of the tournament will receive just $1,300. When you consider the expenses that a player will incur simply by playing in the tournament, a player must reach the latter stages of the tournament simply to stop his bank balance falling.

The Irish player, James McGee, wrote an excellent article (available here) on the cost of playing on tour early in the year. The relevant aspect here is the expenses that he demonstrates for an average week - €1,200. In today’s exchange rate, this works out at $1,655. In other words, had he been playing in an ITF $10k Futures event, he would have lost $355 if he won the title. By grouping tournaments together, a player can limit transport costs, but they will still be present.

James McGee's expenses for one week of tennis

The point of that minor diversion was to demonstrate the cost of playing at the lower levels. It is here that the temptation of fixing appears. In-play during a $10k event, with just one bookmaker, I am able to place a stake to win £500 on which player will win the next point. I am able to place the same on a break of serve in the next service game. I am able to place a bet to win £1,000 on which player will win the match.

For a player at this level, the opportunity is there. If you happened to draw a highly seeded player in the first round that you expected to lose to, you would expect to take home a cheque for $117.50 or just over £71. Alternatively, you could arrange for someone to place bets to win £500 at each of the eight bookmakers that are covering the match to give you a £4,000 profit for the match. Given that you were expected to lose the match, it would not appear suspicious. Handled effectively, the bets would likely be small enough that they would not be flagged up by any one of the bookmakers.

With the growing options to bet on tennis, it is inevitable that professional fixers will be attracted to the sport. It is arguably one of the easiest of the major sports to fix, given that it simply involves one player against one player. There is no need to bring multiple members of a team into the fold. A double fault here, a forehand hit just wide there. A return looped high or a drop shot into the net. It is not difficult to fix a tennis match, or a certain moment in a tennis match.

As a former tennis trader myself, I have traded ITF matches that I am 99% certain had certain aspects fixed. Whether it be individual games, set correct scores or the winner of sets, I have seen highly suspicious betting patterns on certain matches. All those matches were at the ITF level. All of those bets would have returned four figure amounts. That was with just one bookmaker. Expand those same bets across a number of other bookmakers and the returns would have been significant.

As it happened, those suspected fixes were poorly managed. To an experienced trader, it was obvious fairly quickly that something was amiss. However, with inside experience of how the betting markets work and how accounts and bets are flagged up, I reckon that I could hide suspicious bets without too many issues. If I can achieve this, plenty of other people could easily achieve the same.

There is a clear responsibility on the shoulders of the players to report any approaches of match fixing and not to agree to any part of it. However, the ATP, WTA and ITF also have a role to play in minimising the temptation to take part in the fix. Prize money on the Futures circuit has not increased since they were introduced in 1998. In other words, fifteen years later, the prize money is exactly the same. Given inflation, it has actually fallen significantly in real terms. As a comparison, the total prize money awarded at Wimbledon in 1998 was just over £7.2m. This year, the total prize money was £22.6m.

Betting on ITF tennis is here to stay. For all people want to talk about banning it, this simply will not happen. So, the ITF need to do something to reduce the temptation to fix matches. Whether this is by increasing prize money at Futures events or whether it is by subsidising player expenses, such as accommodation, racquet stringing, etc., it is an area that certainly needs looking at in greater detail.

One of the biggest problems though is the difficulty of proving match fixing. A player can simply deny any involvement and put it down to coincidence that these bets were placed on his match. If there is no traceable link between the player and the money, it is virtually impossible to prove anything, even if the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. There is an argument to look to move toward charging players based on the concept of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.

One of the suspicious matches that I have traded involved two players from the same country, the match being played in said country, plus a newly opened account registered at an address in the city where the tournament was taking place. There were multiple double faults at crucial moments, an unlikely comeback and an account that seemed to know precisely the moments and games to place their bets on.

Hugely suspicious, but almost impossible to actually prove anything. Obviously, the worry is that innocent players might be caught up in improbably circumstances and find themselves banned on the weight of evidence without having actually done anything wrong. However, that is reasonably unlikely. At the very least, it would reduce the temptation to fix matches or events. Knowing that you might be banned based on weight of circumstantial evidence, rather than just ensuring that there is no paper trail will give second thought to players that might be tempted.

Bookmakers and related companies also have a role to play in fighting fixing. Closer cooperation between companies to help detect suspicious betting patterns is already becoming a reality. Companies such as Sportradar that provide live data, betting solutions and security services are in an excellent position to aid in this. However, the bookmakers can only do so much without the help of the sporting federations.

Match fixing has always been present in sport and it will always be present in sport. Human nature means that some athletes will always be tempted to look to gain illegally and that will never be prevented. However, the ITF has a duty to both the players and fans to take action to tackle this scourge. By reducing the temptation and the opportunity cost to players of fixing, it will at least limit the scale of this problem.

5 comments:

  1. Ian,

    Have you read http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1408169967 ? Not tennis related but think you'd enjoy it.

    Mark

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  2. Yeah, I read that earlier this year. Would definitely recommend it to anyone that is interested in fixing in sport...

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  3. Good article.Very little can be done at the lower levels so prevent it ''increasing prize money at Futures events or subsidising player expenses, such as accommodation, racquet stringing'' may have a tiny impact but match fixing is here to stay.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm interested in fixing sport.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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