Double Fault

Tennis Has Always Been Corrupt

The suspicions of corruption surrounding the Australian Open shouldn’t surprise us. Players have been taking money under the table, and fixing matches, for generations.

The ominous claims around the Australian Open that tennis matches have been fixed by gamblers have left fans worldwide in shock. At the start of the year’s first Grand Slam tournament the BBC and BuzzFeed News ran jointly reported stories alleging that the Tennis Integrity Unit, formed in 2008 to deal with a previous betting scandal, had kept secret files on 16 players suspected of throwing matches. Eight of these men were now competing at the Australian Open. Why hadn’t authorities cracked down on this suspected corruption?

The game’s officials argued that BBC and BuzzFeed had recycled old news and that the TIU had only algorithmic evidence of match fixing. Without hard proof, they insisted, they could neither reveal the names of the suspected players nor discuss whether, much less what kind of, investigations they had carried out. No formal charges or findings of guilt have been made. However, according to press reports including The New York Times legal gambling operations came to their own conclusion and took certain matches off the board because of suspicious betting patterns.

Absent thus far has been any historical perspective.

In fact corruption has always been as constant as topspin on the tour. Back in the days when the game was officially “amateur,” players took pay-offs under the table, and often the bagmen were the very people appointed to enforce the rules.

As I have written in the past, after the advent of the professional era in 1968, stars still demanded secret bribes or guarantees to show up for tournaments. These euphemistically named “appearance fees,” although forbidden by the official Code of Conduct, often exceeded the publicly declared prize money and sometimes resulted in top players pocketing a wad of cash, losing on purpose and flying off to lucrative promotional events.

Although personal convenience, not gambling, drove this form of match dumping, the enormous amounts of black money floating around brought accusations of tax fraud (Steffi Graf, Boris Becker and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario were investigated for tax fraud.) and embezzlement (In Amsterdam, for instance, a tournament employee was accused of embezzling money from the ABN Amro Bank in order to pay Ion Tiriac a cash guarantee to ensure the participation of his client Guillermo Vilas. Tiriac responded by accusing the tournament official of extortion.)

Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion Arthur Ashe warned that guarantees created a climate of corruption in which even umpires were compromised. The game’s greatest booster, Bud Collins, went on record, saying, “Tennis was born in dishonesty and has never outgrown it.”

Just as they’re doing in the current betting scandal, tennis authorities back then, including the International Tennis Federation and Association of Tennis Professionals, maintained it was difficult to police hundreds of players and tournaments. While the ITF Code of Conduct (PDF) appeared to provide them broad power to investigate and punish offenders, they lamented that they needed names and facts, not rumors.

Then when they had names and facts, they said they needed evidence that would stand up in a court of law .

They swore they took seriously all accusations of wrongdoing. But as I learned when writing Short Circuit, they responded to reports of rule breaking by attacking the bearer of bad news. Rather than investigate what I revealed about prize-money splitting, match fixing and doubles matches tanked with the knowledge and complicity of tournament officials, they banned me from the U.S. Open and physically rousted me out of the press box at the Italian Open.

After adamantly denying for decades that guarantees existed, men’s tennis legalized them. Now top players collected money up front, then decided just how long they cared to stick around. Gene Scott, the tournament director in Moscow, told me in 2005 about an agent who tried to negotiate a $200,000 guarantee for a Wimbledon champion, admitting up front that his client intended to lose in the first round. The problem, Scott agreed, was systemic now that agents were open about match fixing.

Thinking things might be different on the women’s tour, I waited a decade, then wrote Ladies of the Court about the distaff side of the sport.

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Again, one didn’t need to be Woodward or Bernstein to uncover mind-blowing malfeasances, many involving the physical and sexual abuse of young girls by their parents and coaches. An entire book could be written on this subject, but it also interested me that the Women’s Tennis Association continued to ban guarantees for the same ethical reasons that the men’s tour previously outlawed them.

Then in 1996, when Steffi Graf’s father was indicted in Germany for criminal tax fraud, pre-trial depositions revealed that Steffi had accepted over $11 million in appearance fees in four years. I supplied these court documents to the Women’s Tennis Association, pointing out that this incontrovertible evidence subjected Steffi to immediate suspension, fines and penalties, and to the forfeiture of prize money and, not least, the titles she had won, including half a dozen Grand Slams.

The WTA went silent for months, then it curtly announced that Steffi Graf had not taken guarantees. They refused to discuss how they came to that conclusion, wouldn’t say whether they had questioned Steffi or her father, and offered no evidence to contradict the sworn pre-trial testimony.

So, these days when I hear that tennis can’t crack down on corruption unless it has hard evidence, I wonder exactly what they want, since even court documents produced under oath don’t do the job.

A wiser writer than I might have cut his losses and gone on to a simpler subject like insider trading on Wall Street or Mafia money laundering. But stolid as the Ancient Mariner with an albatross yoked around his neck, I kept producing articles about tennis’s indifference to crimes and misdemeanors that put athletes in other sports in jail.

Eventually with the growth of online gambling and the influence of organized crime, tanking and match fixing turned into something more than a peccadillo in a minor sport.

It has only been low ranked players thus far who have been convicted of match-fixing for betting purposes. There has been a supposition that journeyman players, tired of stars creaming off all the gravy, they created a revenue stream for themselves by feeding information to betting syndicates or placing wagers on matches they knew were about to be tanked.

In 2008, I participated with Frank Deford in an HBO TV special about betting and match fixing in tennis which touched on many of these issues.

I can’t claim that my efforts have led to serious reforms and I harbor no illusions that the current dust-up will prompt tennis to enforce the rules it has written for itself.

The latest news from Australia is that the great alphabet soup of tennis organizations has set up a committee, the Independent Review Panel, to examine the operations of the TIU and “make recommendations for change.”

I’ll believe change is imminent only when I see guys run on court at Wimbledon with FBI, not Nike, stenciled on their windbreakers.