Match-fix­ing re­mains is­sue af­ter lat­est ar­rests

South Florida Sun-Sentinel Palm Beach (Sunday) - - Sports - By Matt Bon­es­teel The Washington Post

With the Grand Slam cal­en­dar set to be­gin Sun­day with the Aus­tralian Open, ten­nis once again is deal­ing with al­le­ga­tions of match fix­ing at its low­est lev­els, a prob­lem the sport can­not seem to shake.

Europol, the European Union’s law en­force­ment agency, an­nounced Thurs­day that the Span­ish Civil Guard has ar­rested 83 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 28 pro­fes­sional ten­nis play­ers, over their al­leged in­volve­ment in fix­ing matches at Chal­lenger and ITF Fu­tures tour­na­ments in Spain. Such events rep­re­sent the sec­ond and third tiers of pro­fes­sional ten­nis, where un­known pro­fes­sional play­ers toil at hun­dreds of barely no­ticed tour­na­ments each year with hopes of ac­quir­ing the points needed to move up the rank­ings.

One of the ar­rested play­ers took part in last year’s U.S. Open, though Europol did not di­vulge any names.

“The sus­pects bribed pro­fes­sional play­ers to guar­an­tee pre­de­ter­mined re­sults and used the iden­ti­ties of thou­sands of cit­i­zens to bet on the pre­ar­ranged games,” Europol said in a news re­lease. “A crim­i­nal group of Armenian in­di­vid­u­als used a pro­fes­sional ten­nis player, who acted as the link be­tween the gang and the rest of the crim­i­nal group.

“Once they bribed the play­ers, the Armenian net­work mem­bers at­tended the matches to en­sure that the ten­nis play­ers com­plied with what was pre­vi­ously agreed, and gave or­ders to other mem­bers of the group to go ahead with the bets placed at na­tional and in­ter­na­tional level.”

It’s the sec­ond time in a lit­tle more than two years that law-en­force­ment of­fi­cials have cracked down on match fix­ing on the Ibe­rian penin­sula. In De­cem­ber 2016, Span­ish law en­force­ment of­fi­cials de­tained 34 peo­ple, in­clud­ing six ten­nis play­ers ranked be­tween Nos. 800 and 1,200 in the world, al­leg­ing they were in­volved in a match-fix­ing net­work in Spain and Por­tu­gal. The play­ers al­legedly re­ceived about $1,000 per match for los­ing spe­cific points or games in 17 Fu­tures and Chal­lenger tour­na­ments in Spain.

Therein lies one of the rea­sons match-fix­ing is so preva­lent at these lower-tier events: The prize money in­volved is of­ten pal­try, giv­ing play­ers an in­cen­tive to throw matches at tour­na­ments in far-flung lo­cales that few peo­ple are watch­ing .

For in­stance, a 24-yearold Spa­niard named David Perez Sanz won six ti­tles on the ITF Fu­tures Tour last year — five in Egypt and one in Sri Lanka — but took home less than $20,000 in tour­na­ment win­nings for the year. For com­par­i­son’s sake, Roger Fed­erer re­ceived nearly $3 mil­lion alone for win­ning last year’s Aus­tralian Open. Play­ers who lost f i r st- ro u n d matches at the U.S. Open re­ceived $50,000.

“You hear so many sto­ries about other play­ers get­ting ap­proached,” Laslo Ur­ru­tia Fuentes, an ITF Fu­tures Tour player, told The New York Times last year. “They say when they are play­ing re­ally weak play­ers, some­one says, ‘Lose the first set and you will get $6,000.’ ”

Ac­cord­ing to an In­ter­na­tional Ten­nis Fed­er­a­tion study cited by The New York Times last year, 6,000 of the 14,000 play­ers who en­tered ITF Fu­tures tour­na­ments around the globe in 2013 didn’t earn one cent of prize money. Only 336 men and 253 women out of the 14,000 broke even, when fac­tor­ing in costs for travel and lodg­ing.

“That’s quite as­ton­ish­ing for a sport that has al­most $300 mil­lion in prize money,” Kris Dent, the ITF’s se­nior ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of pro­fes­sional ten­nis, told the Times. “These smaller tour­na­ments have no TV, no spon­sor­ships and no one pay­ing any money to go see them, and they never will.”

Last year, an In­de­pend- ent Re­view Panel — sanc­tioned by ten­nis’s gov­ern­ing bod­ies — is­sued rec­om­men­da­tions on tack­ling match fix­ing in a re­port that took more than two years to com­plete.

One of the pro­pos­als was to re­duce the num­ber of pro play­ers at the sport’s low­est lev­els to en­sure that prize money “is bet­ter tar­geted to en­able more of the men and women tak­ing part to make a liv­ing.” This year, the ITF is do­ing just that by putting the top 750 men and women into the Chal­lenger Tour, where the prize money and op­por­tu­nity for ad­vance­ment are greater. The rest will play in some­thing called the Tran­si­tion Tour, which will still of­fer a path­way to ten­nis’s higher ranks while of­fer­ing more lo­cal­ized tour­na­ments, cut­ting down on travel costs.

One level up, the Chal­lenger Tour will in­crease the size of its sin­gles draws to 48 from 32, cre­at­ing 2,400 more spots per year. Plus, all Chal­lenger tour­na­ments will be re­quired to sup­ply play­ers with ho­tel ac­com­mo­da­tions.

The sheer num­ber of events at ten­nis’s lower lev­els also can fuel match fix­ing. Play­ers en­ter as many tour­na­ments as they can, but if the next event on the sched­ule both of­fers more lu­cra­tive spoils and over­laps with their cur­rent tour­na­ment, it may give them in­cen­tive to tank.

“This is a sig­nif­i­cant, re­cur­ring prob­lem at the lower lev­els of the ten­nis when dou­bles com­pe­ti­tions, which are of­ten viewed by play­ers as less im­por­tant or valu­able, con­flict with a sin­gles event in the fol­low­ing week,” the In­de­pen­dent Re­view Panel re­port said. “Play­ers on oc­ca­sion per­ceive them­selves as bet­ter off los­ing and mov­ing on than seek­ing to stay in a com­pe­ti­tion, and some act on that per­cep­tion.”

The re­port also rec­om­mended beef­ing up the Ten­nis In­tegrity Unity, which was es­tab­lished by the sport’s gov­ern­ing bod­ies in 2008 but has been crit­i­cized as un­der­staffed and ill- equipped to deal with the modern meth­ods of match fix­ing.

In 2018, the TIU sanc­tioned 21 peo­ple for of­fenses such as match fix­ing, fail­ing to re­port cor­rup­tion and re­fus­ing to co­op­er­ate with its in­ves­ti­ga­tions, ban­ning eight play­ers and of­fi­cials from the sport for life. Most of the sanc­tioned play­ers had ca­reer-high rank­ings in the triple dig­its.

Even with reform, the rise of on­line gam­bling and the very na­ture of the sport make it ripe for match­fix­ing.

“The na­ture of the game lends it­self to ma­nip­u­la­tion for bet­ting pur­poses,” the In­de­pen­dent Re­view Panel re­port said. “There are many con­tin­gen­cies. There is only one player who must act. De­tec­tion is dif­fi­cult, not least be­cause at many lower level matches there are no spec­ta­tors and in­ad­e­quate fa­cil­i­ties to pro­tect play­ers from po­ten­tial cor­rupters. More­over, un­der­per­for­mance is of­ten at­trib­uted to ‘tank­ing,’ which too of­ten has been tol­er­ated.”

AN­DREW MEDICHINI/AP

Daniele Brac­cali was one of two for­mer Ital­ian play­ers once ranked in the top 50 to get a ban for match fix­ing.

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