Rahul Jacob: BuzzFeed's bizarre tennis match-fixing scoop

The Australian Open is usually the happiest, most boisterous of tennis’ four Grand Slams. It combines the respect for tradition of Wimbledon but avoids its excessive formality. It is commercial alright, but manages to avoid the excesses of the US Open, where the cavernous Arthur Ashe stadium seems half empty because the corporate boxes are often unoccupied.

At first, this year seemed true to form. The roll call of former Australian greats in attendance —names like Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Evonne Goolagong Cawley — seemed more poignant because Aussie Lleyton Hewitt was in his last appearance before retiring. Then, with all the abruptness of a streetside mugging, BuzzFeed and BBC broke a story about match-fixing in tennis.

The report alleged that 16 players who have been in the top 50 over the past ten years had been involved in fixing matches at the behest of gambling syndicates in 2007, including eight players currently participating in the Australian Open. Not many players (or matches) were named but for a 2007 match between Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassalo Arguello where a prominent betting company had been so suspicious of the betting patterns that they cancelled all the transactions on the match.

Typically, during the first week, the post-match press conference that top players attend makes thumbing through a telephone directory seem exciting. But, not at this year’s Australian Open. Novak Djokovic, who according to Forbes earned $48 million in 2014 in endorsements and prize money, revealed his team had been offered £100,000 in 2007 for him to throw a match in St Petersburg, but did not even consider it.

BuzzFeed and BBC say they have evidence of match-fixing, but not enough to actually name the eight players playing in the Australian Open, presumably because the evidence won’t stand up to a libel suit in the famously punitive British courts.

This was a curious expose, one that did not tell us much. The most damning accusation was that the Association of Tennis Professionals had been given reports on match-fixing but had chosen to look the other way. (ATP has a reputation for being a soft state in its punishments on performance enhancing drugs. But, when the Croatian Marin Cilic failed a drug test, pleading that his mother had unintentionally mixed in a glucose supplement to his drink, he was suspended for nine months anyway.)

“The tennis authorities absolutely reject any suggestion that evidence of match fixing has been suppressed,” said Chris Kermode, the president of ATP. He underlined that ATP watchdog “has to find evidence as opposed to information, suspicion or hearsay.” But, tennis authorities do need to do better policing the possibility of match-fixing. The Orwelliian sounding Tennis Integrity Unit has an annual budget of just $2 million with just six investigators and about 120,000 professional matches worldwide to keep an eye on. 

Still, in any sport, even more so with tennis, it is easy to speculate that a player is losing on purpose. One of my colleagues, a fine investigative journalist, this week wondered aloud why Roger Federer often looked as if he was giving up in matches with Rafael Nadal. The answer is that Federer finds Nadal’s mental tenacity dispiriting and his vicious topspin to Federer’s single handed backhand a puzzle he has spent much of his career trying to figure out. But, one of the richest sportsmen in history — with annual earnings of $67 million in 2014 alone — is unlikely to be taking kickbacks from a gambling syndicate.

Memo to Buzzfeed: In 2005, I exchanged a series of text messages and emails with Federer’s wife, Mirka, ahead of the World Tour Finals in Shanghai in November in which he unexpectedly lost. The prosaic explanation is that Federer was playing after a layoff of a few weeks because of an injury, and he ran out of stamina and succumbed to the strange, off-pace game of the Argentine David Nalbandian in the final. Mirka Vavrinec, who handled Federer’s media arrangements at the time, was merely helping me set up interviews with Federer, and his then coach, Roche. There is probably evidence in the call log of a Swiss mobile company that Federer also called me that week in Shanghai a decade ago, but he was simply fixing a time for me to interview his mother Lynette. No money changed hands.

More seriously though, Federer’s rebuttal of the allegations doubled served also as an indictment of the salacious BuzzFeed and BBC. “I would love to hear names,” the Swiss said. “Then at least you can actually debate about it…Was it a doubles player, a singles player? Which Slam? It’s so all over the place.” On court, there is much more compelling evidence that players will fight to the end to win. A first week highlight from Melbourne was Hewitt, 34, covering every inch of the court against David Ferrer. Completely outmatched, he retrieved and retrieved again as if he wanted to make his last match go on forever. Afterwards, the organisers unexpectedly ushered Hewitt’s three young children onto the court to join their father as he left the court to a standing ovation.

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