Tennis' vulnerability to corruption, match-fixing lies in economics
MELBOURNE – Giving new dimension to the phrase “catering to the players,” the Australian Open organizers tried something new this year. Usually, players are given meal allowances at tournaments and provided with X dollars to spend at the competitors’ restaurant. At this event, though, players were told they had all-you-can eat privileges. Treat the restaurant like an open bar. Order as much as you want.
It was a well-intentioned touch, yet another reason why the players consistently rate this tournament as their favorite on the circuit. But this policy has been a disaster—so much so, we’re told, that it is already being “reassessed.”
Why? Because players are rational actors and they treat all-you-can-eat the way the rest of us do. They ordering the slow-cooked lamb AND the grilled salmon. They can’t decide between smoothie flavors, so they order both. The sushi’s unlimited? I’ll take one of each. Lines have been intolerably long. The restaurant has run out of some foods by midday. There are stories of players ordering three sandwiches and sticking two in their bag, presumably to eat later, back at the hotel.
It's an example of what happens when authorities miscalculate economics and incentives. And it’s instructive when we talk about the topic du jour at this event: match-fixing. The scandal has hijacked the first three days of the tournament. And as we await the next orthotics-embedded shoe to drop, this has become clear: tennis is uniquely vulnerable to corruption. There’s no team that needs to be complicit, only one individual. There are hundreds of matches played daily all over the world, often on courts without cameras to memorialize the action and provide incriminating video. Unforced errors are the norm—Fernando Verdasco committed 91 of them on Tuesday and won the match!—so it’s hard to differentiate a miss from a purposeful miss.
But tennis’ real vulnerability to corruption lies in the economics. Novak Djokovic claimed that he was once declined a $200,000 offer to play dishonestly. Again, he declined—let’s stress this. But let’s also stop here: $200,000? Whoa, That’s more than all but a few dozen players—male or female—net in a year, after paying for coaching and travel. Go down further on the tennis org chart and it’s an even more staggering sum. You can place a wager on the Tampa Challenger, to pick an event at random. At this tournament, a first round loser earns $104. Someone offers him $200,000 to dump a match and it’s easy to see how temptation could trump morality.
It stands to reason that the Tennis Integrity Unit—tasked with stamping out corruption—is severely underfunded, that an office with a $2 million budget is going to be hopelessly outgunned when bets are placed on more than 100,000 matches each year. But the real economic challenge to tennis is fighting the incentive structure, and dealing with the disparity between low levels of prize money and high levels of betting. We have no glib solution but, as things, stand now, the math is grim. Gamblers can make tens of thousands of dollars betting on players who are competing for $104 in prize money? That’s an invitation to an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Five thoughts from midday on Day 3
• After a grind-em-out first round win against Camila Giorgi, Serena Williams was back to her dominating self today, beating Taiwan's Hsieh Su-Wei 6–1, 6–2 on Rod Laver Arena.
• Serena was preceded by Maria Sharapova—lurking as a potential semifinal opponent—who saw off Belarusian Aliaksandra Sasnovich 6–2, 6–1.
• Serena was followed by Roger Federer, who turned in a businesslike defeat of Alexandr Dolgopolov 6–3, 7–5, 6–1.
• In the battle of the one-handed backhands, Dominic Thiem had little trouble with Nicolas Almagro, winning in three sets.
• Li Na was on the grounds today. Apart from reporting that her husband Dennis has lost 12 kg of “stress fat” she was pleased that four Chinese women reached the round of 64.
A little Q/A
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
Wozniacki out in R1? Will she ever get over the hump? Why does she struggle? (potential mailbag question for you!)
• A lot of players—more than I can ever recall—have turned in mystifying results so far in this event. Sloane Stephens wins a tune-up, arrives to a Slam where she reached the semis three years ago….and then flames out to a qualifier. Second-seed Simona Halep looked flatter than a chessboard, losing to Shuai Zhang. Even Rafael Nadal losing to Fernando Verdasco is a curious result. There are different reasons for each loss, of course. In Nadal’s case, his opponent played a lights-out fifth set, clocking 90 winners on the match. In Halep’s case, she still has an Achilles injury. In Stephens’ case, she still has a hard time fighting through on days when she’s not at her best.
In the case of Wozniacki, it’s same diagnosis as ever. She has the physique and the strength to hit the ball; but too often she plays the role of defensive cutie and pays the price—almost like a boxer who can defend but never through meaningful punches and loses on points.
Hey Jon. Just finished watching the Chardy-Gulbis match where Chardy thought he won much earlier on a double fault that wasn't called. Can you explain why the Grand Slams aren't required to have Hawk-Eye on every court? I know they'll cite cost but I have a hard time believing that given the money the tournaments bring in between TV rights, sponsorships, ticket sales and concessions. If Larry Ellison can do it, why can't they? I know the top players won't complain given they're never relegated to the outer courts, but it just doesn't seem fair to the rest of the players.
• One of the great mysteries. Imagine another sporting event where playing competing simultaneously don't have access to the same technology. It’s inexcusable.
Look as long as we’re here, I sustain my gripe that we need to expand Hawk-Eye and technology. In Federer’s match on Wednesday, Dolgopolov stopped play when he thought a ball double-bounced on Federer’s side of the net. The chair agreed. Federer thought he reached it cleanly. Why wouldn’t we resolve this by consulting replay? (Which confirmed that the ball indeed bounced twice.) We’re left with the irony: anyone at home watching on T.V. knew what happened. The three principals most deeply impacted—the two players and the chair—were left guessing.
Watching you on Tennis Channel as I write. (Great job as always by the TC team.) As much as I loathe to ask: Sloane Stephens, Buy, Hold or Sell? I ask in the context of the likelihood or her being firmly embedded in the Top 10, and consistently vying for the major tournaments. Is it time to take the money and run?
—Aaron Mayfield (Wisconsin native, and Steve Miller Band enthusiast)
• Every time you say “buy,” Stephens disappoints. Every time you’re tempted to unload your shares, she turns in a nice result. I say hold and be prepared for a lot of fluctuation. It's like owning Alibaba.
• Here’s our interview on the match-fixing scandal with former Betfair head of education Scott Ferguson.
• Andy Murray and Garbine Muguruza have won the International Tennis Writers Association’s top awards. The 28-year-old Scot and the 22-year-old Spaniard were voted ITWA’s Ambassadors of the Year for 2015. It is the second time Murray has won the award and the first time it has gone to Muguruza.
• Alex Wolff will be down from Vermont on Wednesday, screening and commenting on images from his book The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama at the Barnes & Noble on Broadway at 82nd Street. The event starts at 7 p.m. on Wednesday with a signing to follow.
• @jmb982 has Separated at birth: U.K. actor Tom Bateman and Roger Federer. Just saw Bateman in play in London and kept thinking I was watching RF.