Joint investigation by BBC and Buzzfeed unearths some alarming activity
A joint investigation by the BBC and the online publication Buzzfeed uncovering evidence of match-fixing at top player levels in international tennis started hitting the headlines over the weekend and looks set to generate large volumes of political and business comment.
The results of the investigation are to aired on BBC television on Tuesday night UK time.
The investigators claim to have seen secret files exposing evidence of widespread match fixing, and that despite repeated warnings from betting companies and others on the activities of a core group of 16 players ranked in the world top fifty, the sport's governing bodies have not acted.
"None have faced any sanctions and more than half of them will begin playing at the Australian Open on Monday," the report alleges, noting that world tennis authorities were first handed "compelling" evidence of major tournament match-fixing seven years ago, yet all the players involved are still active.
The BBC-Buzzfeed investigation is based on a cache of leaked documents from inside the sport as well as an original analysis of the betting activity on 26,000 matches and interviews across three continents with gambling and match-fixing experts, tennis officials, and players, the two media companies explain.
The files contain detailed evidence of suspected match-fixing orchestrated by gambling syndicates in Russia and Italy, which was uncovered in the landmark 2008 probe, and which authorities subsequently shelved.
"They could have got rid of a network of players that would have almost completely cleared the sport up," claims Mark Phillips, one of the original investigators. "We gave them everything tied up with a nice pink bow on top and they took no action at all."
BuzzFeed News began its investigation after devising an algorithm to analyse gambling on professional tennis matches over the past seven years. It identified 15 players who regularly lost matches in which heavily lopsided betting appeared to substantially shift the odds — a red flag for possible match-fixing.
Four players showed particularly unusual patterns, losing almost all of these red-flag matches. Given the bookmakers' initial odds, the chances that the players would perform that badly were less than 1 in 1,000.
Among the findings of the investigators are claims that both singles and doubles titles at major tournaments were manipulated by players; that players are being approached at their hotels with five-figure offers to throw matches; more than 70 players have appeared on leaked lists of suspected fixers that have been flagged for tennis authorities over the last ten years but there have been no sanctions; and that Italian and Russian gambling syndicates have profited from suspicious bets placed on major tournaments.
Approached for comment, the head of the Tennis Integrity Unit, Nigel Willerton, admitted that tennis authorities had "drawn a line" under evidence uncovered and reported in the 2008 probe, in which 28 players were flagged for fixing, explaining that no action was taken against these players on legal advice that a new integrity code that was subsequently approved did not have provision for retrospective enforcement.
However, the BBC-Buzzfeed investigation unearthed evidence that since the code came into effect the authorities have been given warnings on nine top players who continued to engage in suspicious activity.
Willerton insisted that his unit's highly experienced officials conscientiously investigate all credible information and that a zero-tolerance policy on match-fixing is adhered to. The TIU chief pointed to 13 male players (all low-ranking) who had been disciplined for fixing following TIU enquiries.
The president of the Association of Tennis Professionals, Chris Kermode, assured the BBC-Buzzfeed investigation that the industry takes corruption reports seriously, and suggested that "the idea that tennis is not acting appropriately is ludicrous."
However, other former officials close to the issue have come forward with opinions that differ.
One of them is Ben Gunn, a retired police chief who headed a review recommending the imposition of an integrity code following the 2008 revelations. He opined that instead of cleaning up the sport thoroughly, tennis authorities created a weak and understaffed integrity unit that had ignored key evidence of wrongdoing.
"What they did is a plastic solution which was not effective then and it's not effective now," he said.
That opinion is apparently shared by Richard Ings, a former executive with the Association of Tennis Professionals, who opined that match-fixing took place regularly in the sport and that the TIU's response to it has been secretive and disappointing.
The BBC-Buzzfeed expose is extensively detailed and documented, and can be read here:
http://www.bbc.com/sport/tennis/35319202 and here: http://www.buzzfeed.com/heidiblake/the-tennis-racket#.dxkq1079r
UPDATE: In a hastily convened press conference Monday morning in Melbourne, Association of Tennis Professionals chief Chris Kermode rejected the allegations arising from the Buzzfeed-BBC investigation, saying:
"The Tennis Integrity Unit and the tennis authorities absolutely reject any suggestion that evidence of match-fixing has been suppressed for any reason or isn't being thoroughly investigated.
"And while the BBC and BuzzFeed reports mainly refer to events from about 10 years ago, we will investigate any new information, and we always do. In its investigations, the Tennis Integrity Unit has to find evidence, as opposed to information, suspicion or hearsay. This is the key here: that it requires evidence.
"A year-long investigation into the Solpot match in 2007 found insufficient evidence. As the BuzzFeed report states itself, the investigators hit a brick wall and it just wasn't possible to determine who the guilty party was in relation to this match.
"All professional players, support staff and officials are subject to the tennis anti-corruption programme. Tennis Integrity Unit anti-corruption investigations have resulted in 18 convictions, of which six have had life bans."
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