"The Tennis Racket," an investigative story published by Buzzfeed News and the BBC got me to thinking about a blog post I wrote six years ago on my defunct tennis blog. Here it is, originally published January 29, 2010, on topspinblog.com.
I doubt most readers of this blog have been to an American dog track, where greyhounds run a frantic loop chasing an electronic rabbit that scoots along the rail. In Sarasota, Florida, the announcer used to start each race with a fevered, "Here comes lucky!" the dogs take off, and hundreds if not thousands of fans hold their tickets and cheer and yell and then most tear them in half and curse.
I worry that professional tennis may soon become the dog tracks of the future, where gambling on the sport is the driving source of revenue. I also worry that it will become as crooked as boxing is known to be, and that many of the matches are corrupted by players willing to hit enough bad shots to lose when they could have won. I think it will be any day now when tennis suffers a match-fixing scandal of the highest order, similar to baseball's famed Shoeless Joe Jackson/Chicago Black Sox fix of the 1919 World Series or college basketball's 1951 point-shaving scheme.
I know I sound alarmist here, but two things have prompted me to say this. The first is the solicitations I've received for my blog. I do not get tremendous traffic, seeing just shy of 10,000 unique visitors in 2009, but in spite of that, I have been contacted three or four times recently by web sites who compliment me on the quality of the writing, and then ask for a link exchange with a site that purports to be a tennis blog or news page. One even offered to pay me. When I visit their pages, I find they are simply betting sites, and are hosted in spots all over the globe, including New Zealand the Czech Republic. The bets offered don't include simply Grand Slams or ATP events, but the opportunity to gamble on Challenger events in places like Lexington, Kentucky, or Biloxi, Mississippi, where players well out of the top 100 compete. How hard do you think it might be to get a player who has never earned more than $100,000 in one year (and remember, that's before their expenses of traveling, training, etc.) to throw a match for a bag of cash? All you need is one desperate player.
The second is, that in spite of the obvious risk of match fixing, gambling gets the endorsement of some of the cornerstone organizations in the game. The Australian Open is even sponsored by a London-based gambling web site, a recent report in The New York Times said. Not only are they a sponsor, the more money bet, the more money the Australian Open makes, as the article by Joe Drape reported: "[The gambling site I refuse to name here] pays Tennis Australia a share of revenue from wagers on matches during the tournament. '“We’re not opposed to gambling,” said Steve Ayles, a spokesman for the Australian Open. “It is part of our Australian culture and it is widely accepted.”'
Tennis organizations have created a lofty sounding "Tennis Integrity Unit," and a study found 45 matches that caused suspicions. But in the biggest suspected case, Nikolai Davydenko was cleared, despite that "the ATP acknowledged that its investigators were unable to review the phone records of Davydenko’s wife and brother, which were first withheld and then destroyed" the Times reported.
We clearly can't expect much investigative savvy from an organization that believed Andre Agassi's excuse for testing positive for crystal meth was that he sipped a friend's drink, or Richard Gasquet's recent claim that he didn't do cocaine, he only kissed a woman who had been, causing him to test positive. The ATP is predisposed to believing the falling down drunk who runs his car into a telphone pole and claims, "I only had two beers."
Even with crack investigative work, I don't know if match fixing can really be stopped. I love following tennis and other sports because of the unscripted nature of it, of the possibility that anybody, even someone ranked 900 in the world could beat a favorite, as unlikely as that might be. But with the growth of gambling, I will wonder. Was the upset I saw real, or did the favorite just need the money?
With the multinational flavor of tennis, tracking the exchange of currencies across the globe and through many tongues is almost impossible. I don't know what can be done, if anything, to stop it. But tennis organizations, especially prestigious Grand Slam events like the Australian Open, need to eschew any connection to gambling. But in Australia, much like the bets on a dog race, a portion of the bets made go the house. And the house always wins, and the dogs always lose. In this case, tennis fans, the dogs are us.