The alleged systematic match-fixing of men’s professional tennis that has undermined the start of the 2016 Australian Open is “impossible to stop”, according to a sport integrity expert.
A joint investigation by the BBC and Buzzfeed on Monday uncovered evidence which suggested match-fixing had occurred “repeatedly” by 16 players in the top 50 of the ATP Tour, with the report also alleging the ATP tried to cover it up and had done little to stop it.
The group allegedly included a US Open champion, doubles winners at Wimbledon and one top-50 ranked player competing in the Australian Open who was suspected of regularly fixing his first sets.
World No.1 Novak Djokovic, speaking after his comfortable first-round win on Monday, revealed he was approached to fix a tennis match when he was a teenager in 2006.
Djokovic said he had been approached to throw a match 10 years ago, but stressed he had never spoken to the fixer.
“I was not approached directly. I was approached through people that were working with me at that time,” he said.
“Of course, we threw it away right away. It didn’t even get to me, the guy that was trying to talk to me, didn’t even get to me directly. There was nothing out of it.
“Unfortunately in those times [there were] rumours, some talks, some people were going around. They were dealt with.
“In the last six, seven years, I haven’t heard anything similar. I personally was never approached directly, so I have nothing more to say about that.”
Djokovic was reportedly offered $US200,000 ($A290,000) to throw the match, but the Serb insisted match-fixing is “a crime in sport”.
“[The approach] made me feel terrible because I don’t want to be anyhow linked to this kind of thing,” he said.
“Somebody may call it an opportunity. For me, that’s an act of unsportsmanship, a crime in sport, honestly. I don’t support it.
“I think there is no room for it in any sport, especially in tennis. I always have been taught and have been surrounded with people that had nurtured and respected the sport’s values. That’s the way I’ve grown up.
“Fortunately for me, I didn’t need to get directly involved in these particular situations.”
A report published by The Age claims Victorian police questioned local tennis figures about potential match-fixing during the Australian Open, just days before the BBC and Buzzfeed reports emerged.
Gambling’s unstoppable force
Victoria University expert in sports ethics and business Hans Westerbeek said he saw no way of preventing endemic match and spot-fixing.
“For it to be stopped it is virtually impossible,” Professor Westerbeek told The New Daily. “The number of opportunities to quite significantly manipulate the outcome of the game without it being detected is in itself a characteristic of this type of stuff.
“It will continue to make it attractive for people who are in vulnerable positions … I don’t think you can stop it.”
Professor Westerbeek said strict penalties from sport’s governing bodies and legal authorities would be the only way to stop the spread of match-fixing.
He believed it highly unlikely betting on sport would be banned, therefore declaring tougher penalties the best deterrent.
“You’d probably be confronted by legal challenges [if sports betting was banned],” he said. “All those betting agencies make so much money on the back of sporting organisations.
“I’d be hard pressed to see how sporting executives could give up the large amounts of betting revenue their games get.”
The investigation alleged players were being stopped in hotels at major tournaments to be offered $US50,000 ($A73,100) or more per fix.
It claimed to have revealed gambling syndicates in Russia and Italy that made lucrative dollars placing highly suspicious bets on scores of matches – including at Wimbledon and the French Open.
Remarkably, the names of more than 70 players reportedly appeared on nine leaked lists of suspected fixers who had been flagged to world tennis authorities over the past 10 years with no sanction.
One sanctioned player – Austrian Daniel Koellerer – was fined and banned for life for match-fixing in 2011.
However, a court overturned the fine as he had not benefited financially from the charges for which he had been found liable.
“As a tennis player, you cannot believe how easy it is to play the ball next to the line, but not in the field, out,” he told the BBC.
“No one from 10,000 people watching the match will realise if this match is fixed or not.”
Tennis Australia must come clean: Senator
Politicians and tennis bosses reacted strongly to condemn and deny the report’s shocking allegations.
ATP president Chris Kermode told a snap press conference in Melbourne that “tennis authorities absolutely reject” the claims.
“All of us here in tennis are absolutely committed to stamp out any form of corrupt conduct in our sport,” Mr Kermode said.
“There is a zero tolerance policy on this (anti-corruption investigations). We are not complacent, we are very vigilant on this.”
Director of the ATP-funded Tennis Integrity Unit Nigel Willerton told the same press conference his investigators were suitably equipped to fight match-fixing.
“The rules we’ve got are very robust and they give us good, good investigative powers,” Mr Willerton said.
However he would not confirm if any players at the 2016 Australian Open were under investigation.
The TIU was set up after a 2007 match in Poland between Russia’s Nikolay Davydenko and Argentine Martin Vassallo Arguello, which attracted millions of dollars’ worth of highly suspicious bets from Russian-based accounts.
Neither player was charged although the BBC and Buzzfeed report alleged Arguello sent 84 text messages to the suspected head of a Sicilian match-fixing ring at the time.
The TIU has since disciplined 13 low-ranking male players for fixing and banned five for life.
Independent senator and anti-gambling activist Nick Xenophon said: “We need to know if the game in Australia is absolutely clean.”
“If there is evidence anyone has been involved in match-fixing, in corrupt practices related to sports betting, to gambling and corrupt gambling syndicates, Tennis Australia ought to disclose that as a matter of priority.”
The New Daily contacted Tennis Australia for comment but it did not respond to the questions.
However, in a statement Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley said: “We have built an international reputation for the integrity of the tournament and the anti-corruption systems we have in place.”
Federal Sports Minister Sussan Ley said the story was a “strong reminder why we need to remain ever vigilant” and that she was “confident Australia has a strong sports integrity system”.
– with ABC