Racket

07.05.15 4:01 AM ET

The Secret World of Tennis Gambling

One study concludes over 20 first-round pro tennis matches are fixed every year. Why? Because it’s almost too easy to throw a match.

The bookies knew something was up. Eleven bettors, nine of them based in Russia, had just put millions of dollars via the English sportsbook Betfair on Martin Vassallo Arguello beating Nikolay Davydenko in their match at the Orange Prokrom Open in Sopot, Poland on August 2, 2007. The wagers, which pushed the total betting volume to 10 times past average, came in after Arguello, ranked 87th in the world, had dropped the first set 6-2 to Davydenko, ranked 4th in the world. Davydenko eventually retired from the match in the third set, citing a stress fracture in his left foot.

If the fix was in, no one was bothering to cover their tracks.

Per their agreement, Betfair alerted the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the governing body of men’s professional tennis, of the suspicious betting patterns and voided all bets placed on the match. The ATP launched an inquiry that lasted more than a year, the association’s longest ever investigation of match fixing. Both Davydenko and Arguello were cleared by the ATP of any wrongdoing due to a lack of evidence.

Regardless, you’d be hard pressed to find a tennis fan or gambling expert who doesn’t believe the match was fixed. Harder still would be finding anyone from either group who doesn’t believe match fixing is an ongoing problem in tennis. Why it happens is simple: Tennis is perfectly suited—in every way—for match fixing.

Tennis is the third-most bet upon sport in the world and, between the ATP and the Women’s Tennis Association, there are 126 tournaments making up this year’s tour. The sheer volume of betting and matches makes spotting suspicious activity virtually impossible in all but the most obvious and reckless cases.

Then there’s the sport’s inherent vulnerability to “spot fixing.” European sportsbooks allow bettors to wager on not just matches, but sets, games, and even individual points. A corrupt player could easily throw a handful of points over the course of a match and not even the keenest observer would be able to spot it.

Of course, a player needs motivation to go corrupt. Tennis does a fine job of making sure players have the best motivation of all.

“The problem lies in players’ pay,” says Brian Tuohy, a journalist and author who has written extensively on gambling in sports. “If a player recognizes he or she is a good player, but can never be a ‘great’ one, traveling the world and playing for gamblers could easily make for a better life than attempting to be ranked in the top 10.”

A look at the ATP and WTA’s money leaders makes the temptation obvious. While Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams have both cleared $6 million in prize money this year, no players outside the top 10 have cracked the seven-figure mark seven months into the year. The money leaders list also obscures a little-known fact about tennis—it’s one of the most expensive sports in the world to compete in.

Travel expenses alone can cost a tour player more than $100,000 per year, and a full-time coach starts at around $50,000 per year.

“Since many tennis players who compete actually lose money due to travel expenses, fixing a match can be more profitable to a player than winning prize money at a tournament,” says Tuohy. “Tennis organizations have recognized this fact, but player compensation continues to lag behind the profits possible in fixing.”

As for how prevalent match fixing in tennis actually is, there’s no real, quantifiable answer. But a 2014 study tried to do just that.

“Forensic Sports Analytics: Detecting and Predicting Match-Fixing in Tennis,” authored by Ryan Rodenberg and Elihu Feustel, combines predictive tennis models with betting market analysis to conservatively conclude that 1 percent of first-round tournament matches over a two-plus-year span were likely fixed. That’s an average of 23 matches per year.

It’s a conclusion that lends credence to the widespread belief that the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU), which is responsible for investigating match fixing in tennis, is failing to achieve its goal of eradicating corruption in the sport.

Little is known about the TIU, as it maintains a strict confidentiality policy and makes no public comment on its work beyond confirming the results of investigations that result in disciplinary action. Since being established in September 2008, the TIU has levied fines, suspensions, and even lifetime bans in a handful of corruption cases. But its aversion to transparency and record of punishing only lower-ranked players has led some insiders to conclude that the unit is concealing the full extent of tennis’s match fixing problem.

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Either way, there is nothing the unit can do about the structure of the sport’s matches and its compensation scale—both of which serve to make tennis uniquely susceptible to match fixing.

Meanwhile, Wimbledon goes on at the All England Club with all of its genteel Victorian glamour intact. The tournament, considered the most prestigious in the sport, will pay out more than $41 million in total prize money, with nearly $3 million going to both the men’s and women’s champion.

The players who lost in the first round will receive $45,000, knowing—one way or another—they could have received a much bigger payday.