Wednesday September 17th, 2008

The image of tennis has long been that of a rather dainty exercise, played before ladies and gentlemen on lawns -- not anything so de classe as "fields." It was the last major sport where amateurs, not those grubby professionals, competed in the most important championships. "Love" is in the scoring. The one expression most often used to put down its snooty image is: "Tennis, anyone?"

But, in fact, tennis has always had a dark underside. It's revealing that that denigrating expression was, in fact, almost surely first uttered on Broadway by a young actor named ... Humphrey Bogart -- yes -- who, of course, became Bogie, the quintessential hard-boiled egg. Say it like the latter Bogart: "Tennis anyone?" and you get the more accurate depiction of reality.

Through the years a culture of deceit and hypocrisy infected the sport. Sure, it remained amateur, but everyone knew that the players -- casually known as "tennis bums" -- were being paid under the table, often by the very men who made the rules. Conflict of interest raged. If you didn't wear at least two hats you were at a disadavantage. Players understood that losing a match on purpose -- "tanking" was the everyday verb -- was tolerated. I can even remember hearing stories -- har, har -- about players on both sides of the net trying to tank the same match.

But then, in the many years I covered tennis, I heard it all. Who was pulling the strings, who was double-dealing, who was taking drugs, who was sleeping with whom. But, for all the genial corruption, never did I hear or know anyone else who heard that some player fixed a match for money ... until internet betting arrived a few years ago. It will probably shock most Americans to learn that, on the internet, tennis is the third-most popular betting sport in the world, trailing only horse racing and soccer.

As early as 2003 there were reports that players were throwing matches. Of course, that shouldn't be any surprise. The men's sport is set up almost to encourage it. Players are allowed to take guarantees, but don't have to let the public know. Players have the right not to count certain matches in their ranking. You play, you get guaranteed money, you lose, you inform the officials it doesn't count. Not only that, but you help your buddy whom you're playing to win and gain ranking points. Convenient, huh?

Last year, Betfair, by far the largest sports internet wagering exchange, took the extreme step of voiding all bets on a match that Nikolay Davydenko, then world No. 4, lost, most curiously, while millions of dollars piled in on his underdog opponent. Never before or since had Betfair felt it had to take this ultimate action. A review funded by the sport's most prominent body, the Association of Tennis Professionals, came up with 44 other suspect matches. More than a dozen pros have disclosed that they were approached to fix matches -- often right in a tournament locker room, even at Wimbledon. Murder in the cathedral! Imagine if Vegas voided all bets on, say, an NBA game and an investigation showed 44 others were dubious and a dozen players had been approached, even in their locker rooms. It would be cataclysmic. Nothing less than a joint session of Congress would surely be called.

But that's what happened in tennis and, as always, nothing budged. Recommendations for supposedly cleaning the sport up don't even require players who are approached by fixers to report any such damaging conversation. Don't tell, we won't ask. And, last week, after a year, and after all the media had scattered away from the U.S. Open, the ATP chose that moment to announce that it had completely cleared Davydenko.

So tennis goes on, as before, in a twilight world, where rules are made to be winked at. There are no more tennis bums, but, for me, the whole beautiful sport is a tennis bummer.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.