If you don't follow tennis, you probably missed it. If you do follow the sport, you still probably missed it. Two weeks ago, the Mail on Sunday, a British newspaper, published an unsettling report in which a veteran sports corruption investigator claimed that:
1. As many as a dozen top-50 tennis players who have been involved in "suspicious" matches -- read: contests showing signs of being fixed -- could be playing at Wimbledon;
2. Dozens of players across the sport, including some who have reached the top 10, have been privately warned by investigators after being involved in suspicious matches;
3. Perhaps most disturbingly, tennis authorities have been punishing no-name players for gambling, fixing and involvement in suspicious matches while letting well-known players slide -- the equivalent of the NCAA ignoring wrongdoing at Kentucky while leveling sanctions on Cleveland State.
Other than that, Ms. Lincoln, how do you like your strawberries and cream?
"The 'tennis family' were aware that there was no smoke without fire," the anonymous official told Nick Harris of the Mail on Sunday. "They'd had years of accusations of fixing and plenty of hard betting data indicative of fixing. They knew there were people who were corrupt, and corruptible, and there still are.
"There were certainly elements within the ruling bodies … that wanted stuff swept under the carpet. But to do the job to the full extent, you need to tackle the higher profile people involved and not just the lesser players. If you don't want a problem [with bigger players], don't look for it. And if you want to look for it, be aware that it won't smell sweet."
Here's the thing: I'm biased. I love tennis. I used to cover it regularly. I don't want to believe that it's a wretched hive of scum, villainy and surreptitiously double-faulting on match point for ill-gotten dollars, the better for some match-rigging Moldavian mafioso to cash in on a hefty online bet. Besides, Serena Williams doesn't need her opponents to take dives. Roger Federer isn't hard up for cash. Gael Monfils' erratic play can be best explained by … being Gael Monfils. If I learned anything in journalism school -- beyond the wisdom of arriving early at events, the better to scope out the free buffet -- it's that one anonymous source, no matter how highly placed, does not a Watergate make.
Still, I can't just dismiss the Mail on Sunday's report, either. Not when the notion of widespread -- or even occasional -- tennis fixing is utterly plausible. And not when the sport's efforts to prevent corruption seem as suspicious and opaque as the problem itself.
Let's start with the obvious: Like college basketball, tennis is ripe for fixing. Maybe even more so. For one, there's a market. Never placed a bet on the Australian Open? That's because you're American (and likely not a gambling addict). In Europe, Australia and Asia, there's constant, voluminous action on the sport -- at London-based bookmaker Betfair, tennis reportedly ranks third behind horse racing and soccer among online bettors, and the 2007 Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal drew more than $60 million in wagers.
Members of the jury, your murder weapon. Next up, motive. Tennis is not just the Grand Slams, eight weeks of elite, televised competition. It's dozens and dozens of men's and women's tour stops, qualifying rounds, satellite events. Hundreds and hundreds of matches that take place out of the spotlight, contested by journeyman players whom even hardcore fans haven't always heard of.
About those journeymen: Someone of Federer's standing -- and most important, of his prize money and endorsement total -- has no use for a take-a-dive bribe, any more than a well-compensated college coach like John Calipari or future NBA lottery pick like Andrew Wiggins does. Not so for an impoverished second-string power forward playing in the MEAC. And not so for a tennis player ranked outside the top tour's top 100-150.
A few years ago, Gilles Elseneer -- whose highest ranking was No. 97 in 2004 -- told a Belgian television station that he personally refused an offer of about $140,000 to lose a first-round match at Wimbledon in 2005. How many of his equally anonymous peers would make a different choice, given that an average midlevel player spends nearly that much out of pocket just on traveling to tournaments in a given year?
Discussing match-fixing with the BBC in 2007, Andy Murray called the practice "disappointing" but acknowledged that "everyone knows that it goes on." Describing the financial temptation for a journeyman player, he sounded almost sympathetic.
"A career lasts probably only 10 or 12 years and you have to make all your money while you're still playing," Murray said. "There are some guys who have to come to tournaments every single week and out of their first-round-loser's check -- about 2,500 euros -- they have to pay for their air fares."
Now add opportunity. Patrick McEnroe once told The New York Times that tennis is a "very easy game to manipulate" and that he could "throw a match and you'd never know." He was right. Akin to boxing and other one-on-one sports, a tennis fix requires only a single crooked player sandbagging a handful of key points. An errant forehand here. A drop volley into the net there. A sudden, mysterious stomachache that forces you to withdraw from a match. Who's to say someone isn't trying their best?
None of this is theoretical. Bob Bryan told the Los Angeles Times that he knew of players who had been offered money to fix matches. Tomas Berdych and Jan Hernych both have discussed attempted match-fixing in Russia. In 2009, the Wall Street Journal published the story of Dmitry Avilov, a 20-something Russian gambler who made his living betting on women's tennis. According to the article, Avilov sent a private message to the blog of Ekaterina Bychkova -- a player ranked outside the tour's top 150 -- asking her to take a dive. She declined. No money changed hands. Avilov was undeterred, telling the newspaper he "definitely" planned to contact other players. Similarly, an anonymous player on the men's tour once told ESPN.com's Greg Garber that he could "be a multimillionaire -- if I chose to be. You see everything that happens in the locker room and it has a direct result on the court … I'm sure [fixing] happens. It's too easy. To be honest, I don't know how anyone could find out about it."
Oh, and if outright fixing's not your thing, another tour source told Garber that gambling on inside information is as easy as finding Internet access:
"It's not a question of if, but how much," said one observer intimate with the ATP. "It's too easy to get an online account and bet."
That insider, who asked for anonymity, has been around the Tour for more than 15 years, laid out this chilling, but completely fictional scenario:
"Imagine you're a no-name player, just lost an early afternoon match in Cincinnati. You're getting some treatment in the trainer's room. In comes [Andy] Roddick, saying he turned his ankle on the practice court. It's not that bad and he tells the doc he's going to give it a go tonight in his match.
"Now you leave, go back to the hotel, get online because you've got nothing else to do. So what are you going to do to make life a little more interesting?
"There's really nothing you can do. Sports and betting will always be there."
The above isn't news to tennis authorities. In 2007, Betfair staffers noticed an unusually large amount of money being bet on a match in Poland between Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo Arguello -- about $7 million, 10 times the typical amount for a contest of that caliber. Even stranger: Most of the money was riding on Arguello, a no-name ranked around 70 spots below then No. 4-ranked Davydenko. And the same money was coming from a handful of bettors.
Betfair smelled trouble. After Davydenko withdrew with a foot injury while trailing in the third set, the bookmaker took the unprecedented step of voiding all bets on the match. Meanwhile, the men's tour launched a year-long investigation. Both players ultimately were cleared of any wrongdoing. But the damage was done. Dozens of players sounded off on match-fixing. A European bookmaker provided tennis officials with a list of 140 -- note: not a misprint -- suspicious matches dating from 2002. Italian player Alessio di Mauro, then ranked No. 107, was suspended and fined for betting with an online bookmaker. (None of the bets were on his own matches and no results were affected.) A 2008 report authored by a pair of former London police detectives who specialized in corruption cases found "a strong indication" that gamblers profited from inside information in 45 matches played over five years.
In response, tennis' governing bodies -- the men's and women's tours, plus the International Tennis Federation -- created the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU), a London-based anti-corruption agency that has meted out a handful of public punishments over the last four years. In 2009, four other Italian players were given short bans and fines for betting on tennis; two years later, Austrian player Daniel Kollerer and Serbian player David Savic were banned for life for allegedly inviting other players to fix matches; earlier this year, Russian player Sergei Krotiouk also received a lifetime ban for the same offense, while Dutch player Yannick Ebbinghaus was suspended for six months and fined $10,000 for unspecified wagering on tennis.
Problem solved? Not exactly. The TIU is run by former British police detectives. Which is reassuring. Unlike similar anti-gambling/corruption organizations in soccer and cricket, however, the TIU neither discusses its cases in public nor reveals details of its investigations, charges and verdicts. It simply acts as a black box of trust us justice -- in essence, a Star Chamber.
This is problematic. Justice works best under sunlight. Transparency fosters public trust. Take Ebbinghaus. Was he betting on his own matches? Using inside-the-locker room information to bet on other players' matches? Or consider Savic. Did his fixes ever work? Was he working with gamblers or organized crime?
Right now, there's no way to know. Just as there's no way to know if the Mail on Sunday's report is total rubbish or totally accurate. As a journalist, I find that unsatisfying -- my Spider Sense is definitely piqued -- and as a fan, I find it downright troubling. After all, journeymen tennis players aren't the only entities that need money. The Grand Slams, men's and women's tours and ITF -- all of whom fund the TIU -- need cash, too. From happy fans. From happy sponsors. From people who adore tennis and believe the competition is on the up-and-up. It's probably in the sport's best interest to bust a handful of nobodies, just to show that its anti-corruption efforts are working; it's probably not in the sport's best interest to bring down any big names, lest those same fans and sponsors grow disillusioned.
Three years ago, the Florida-based lawyer who represented the banned Italian players accused tennis authorities of going after "low-hanging fruit that would not impact their bottom line" while covering up the names of "top players" who maintained gambling accounts. In 2007, Ted Forstmann, then the chairman of sports and entertainment conglomerate IMG Worldwide, admitted to betting $40,000 on Roger Federer in the French Open final. One problem: Federer was one of IMG's clients. Imagine Scott Boras betting on the Washington Nationals in the National League Divisional Series.
So, did tennis' powers-that-be launch a secret investigation? Did they levy appropriate punishment? Not exactly. Despite a policy that reportedly prohibited gambling on tennis by "any coach, trainer, manager, agent, family member, tournament guest or other affiliate, or associate of any player," the men's tour released a statement condemning Forstmann's behavior as "inappropriate" and noting that future betting would qualify as a violation.
Then there's the curious case (note: euphemism) of American player Wayne Odesnik, currently ranked No. 107. According to Harris, who has written extensively about tennis corruption for the Mail on Sunday and the website Sportingintelligence.com, Odesnik was investigated by the TIU following a 2009 Wimbledon match in which more than $1 million was wagered on him to lose against Austrian player Jurgen Melzer -- with much of that money gambled specifically on a 3-0 score line. Coincidentally enough, Odesnik lost in straight sets.
Early the next year, Odesnik was busted by Australian customs officials for possession of Human Growth Hormone, a prohibited performance-enhancing drug. Tennis authorities slapped him with a two-year ban. They then agreed to reduce his suspension in exchange for information on match-fixing. Some of Odesnik's testimony reportedly was used to incriminate Kollerer -- but according to a transcript of a 2011 corruption hearing obtained by Harris, that wasn't the end of it:
Q: "Did you give them [the authorities] information about anyone apart from Mr Kollerer?"
Odesnik: "I had given information on a few other players."
Q: "About what subjects? Match-fixing, doping or what?"
Odesnik: "I had given information on both matters."
Q: "What proportion was about Mr Kollerer? Just a little part or was it mainly him?"
Odesnik: "He was a small part of it."
Q: "So the reduction that you got from two years to one year was not just in return for information about Mr Kollerer?"
Odesnik: "Correct. It was not just about Kollerer."
Who was it about? As I said before, there's no way to know. Novak Djokovic once claimed that he was offered more than $100,000 to lose a 2006 match in St. Petersburg. Earlier this week, he told Reuters that "in tennis we don't want illegal things, we don't want players betting … compared to other sports, tennis is still in a very good place." In one sense, he's right. The sport is in a very, very good place. Match-fixing is a real threat -- extremely hard to spot, and harder still to stop. Only nobody seems particularly concerned. The Daily Mail story created significantly less consternation than Rafael Nadal's Wimbledon seeding and a verbal spat between Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. Which is to say: It was published without a ripple. Would a similar report about college basketball be equally ignored? Of course, maybe that's the point of tennis' zip-lipped approach to corruption. Provide too many answers, and pretty soon people start asking uncomfortable questions.