True or not, match-fixing charges overshadow Australian Open
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) The ''Happy Slam'' got off to a somber start when allegations of match-fixing in tennis overshadowed the opening day of play at the Australian Open.
Hours before the tournament started, the BBC and BuzzFeed reported that 16 players, all ranked in the top 50 at some stage and including at least one Grand Slam champion, had played in matches that had been flagged with tennis authorities because of suspicious betting patterns.
The reports also alleged tennis regulators hadn't acted against those players, including some who were set to play at the first major tournament of the season.
It triggered news and reaction around the world, prompting the tennis hierarchy to stage an urgent news conference to refute the allegations.
Suspicion of corruption in parts of the broader game lingers, but the focus at the Australian Open has returned to the tennis court as the tournament comes to close.
''The match-fixing claims have created headlines, true, but we as an organization have been pleased with how the entire sport has responded,'' Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley told The Associated Press. ''It has been decisive and united.''
Being the start of the season and being in Australia, the tournament usually has a laid-back vibe, and some players have dubbed it the ''Happy Slam'' for the atmosphere and hospitality.
Tiley said crowd numbers and viewership showed the tournament hadn't been overshadowed by the match-fixing reports.
''The best answer I can give to that is through the numbers,'' Tiley said. ''We are on track for a record crowd and our other exposure numbers across multiple platforms are also very strong.''
Leading tennis officials have said there was no new evidence in the reports published on day one of the Australian Open. Leading players, including Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, all responded to questions about the topic after their opening matches.
All said there was no problem at the top level, but agreed the sport needed to react swiftly if it was a serious issue.
Just as the first wave of allegations was receding, a second wave crashed into the second week when a New York Times report cast doubt over a mixed doubles match at the tournament.
''It has been hard on the Australian Open, no question about it,'' ATP chairman Chris Kermode noted this week as he announced the independent review of the operations of the sport's Tennis Integrity Unit. ''We need to address the perception, public confidence. We don't have anything to hide at all.''
Tennis Integrity Board and Wimbledon chairman Philip Brook said while he didn't think there was any new evidence of corruption, he acknowledged ''it has changed the environment.''
Federer, who lost to Djokovic on Thursday in the semifinals, said after his opening-round victory that if any new claims of match-fixing were true, it would be ''super serious.'' But he said he'd heard ''old names being dropped.''
''It's like who? What? It's like thrown around, it's so easy to do that. I would love to hear names. Then at least it's concrete stuff,'' Federer said last week. ''Was it a player? Was it support team? Who was it? Was it before? Was it a doubles player, was it singles player? Which slam? It's so all over the place. It's nonsense to answer something that is pure speculation.''
After the initial reports, lists of players appeared on blogs and speculation and innuendo dominated social media. Mainstream media weighed in.
''It's important to point out that having lists, which are mainly compiled by suspicious betting patterns, do not mean corruption,'' Kermode said.
The second week of the tournament was just about to start when the New York Times named some names. The paper reported that a U.S. betting agency had stopped taking bets on a mixed doubles match a half-day before it was set to start because of an unexpected betting plunge.
In the match, Lukasz Kubot and Andrea Hlavackova beat David Marrero and Lara Arruabarrena 6-0, 6-3. Kubot and Hlavackova faced the media the following day, and said they hadn't noticed anything unusual about the match - but confirmed they'd been interviewed by the Tennis Integrity Unit.
On the same day, a case involving a 27-year-old former top 200 player at a low-level futures event in 2013 in Toowoomba, a provincial town in the northern Queensland state, faced a court in Sydney over a corrupt betting charge.
Nick Lukas Lindhal was said to have told a friend he was going to ''tank'' a match ''because that's what tennis players do when they can't play their best.'' He faces court again in April.
Tanking is the tennis term for not giving 100 percent, be it for a point, game, set or match.
Tennis officials recognize there are at least 68 wagers a gambler can make on a match. There are thousands of matches played in tournaments around the world each year, and it could be a target for illegal gambling because it takes only one player to corrupt an outcome,
Even in the Grand Slam tournaments, where scrutiny is high, players can be subjected to fines or sanctions by umpires or tournament referees for what is called ''best efforts'' - or, more specifically, not putting in their best effort.
The independent review of the Tennis Integrity Unit, which was set up in 2008 to combat match-fixing, will have an open-ended deadline and budget and its findings will be made public.
''Yeah, that's positive,'' Murray said after his quarterfinal win. ''I think in these situations, I think people become skeptical when it's sort of kept in-house a little bit.''