A Billion-Dollar Racket

Sept. 10, 2007
Sept. 10, 2007

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Sept. 10, 2007

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A Billion-Dollar Racket

Betting on tennis is now a big business—just ask the fixers

EARLY THIS PASTMarch, on the eve of a men's Masters Series tennis tournament at Indian Wells,Calif., the phone rang in Dmitry Tursunov's hotel room. "Would you like tomake some money?" the caller asked. It wasn't the first time the27th-ranked Russian had been asked that question in that particular way. In thefall of 2006, Tursunov was contacted by an unknown voice offering cash formatch fixing. "It happened to a lot of players," he said. "I don'tknow if it's the same person, but I think everybody gets contacted. And whetheryou act on it or not, it's a problem."

This is an article from the Sept. 10, 2007 issue

And you thoughttennis's biggest headaches were sagging TV ratings and goofy outfits. Stillreeling from suspicious betting patterns surrounding an Aug. 2 match involvingits No. 4 player, Nikolay Davydenko, the sport has found its American showcase,the U.S. Open, dominated by a scandal in the making. New signs in the lockerroom state the USTA's zero-tolerance policy against betting; personnel from ahurriedly hired security firm monitor the players lounge. American player PaulGoldstein told USA Today that he'd been contacted by gambling interests.Lleyton Hewitt said France's Michael Llodra had also, and the French newspaperL'Equipe reported that two unnamed players admitted the same. Last week, No. 56Janko Tipsarevic told SI that he, too, has fended off gamblers seeking an edge,leaving the impression of a tour under quiet and slimy siege. "[Gambling]was the elephant in the room," said ATP president Etienne de Villiers."So the elephant has finally come out."

Tipsarevic says hewas approached by strangers "maybe a couple of times, but before they evensay the price, how much, I say, 'Please, please, please,' and then they leaveme alone. Normally it's a guy you've seen for the first time in your life. Hesays, 'Hi, how are you?' And then, 'I have an offer for you.'"

In a sense thisshould come as no shock: Especially outside the U.S., gambling on tennis is abooming business. At Betfair, the largest online bookmaker in England, tennisis the third-most-popular sport (behind horse racing and soccer) and thefastest growing. Betfair expects to take in $1 billion in bets on this year'sU.S. Open—up 50% from last year. Last month Betfair canceled all bets on amatch between Davydenko and Argentine Martín Vassallo Arg√ºello in Sopot,Poland, after seeing a tenfold spike in betting—with most bets going againstDavydenko after he won the first set. Davydenko retired from the match in thethird set due to a foot injury. A week later he was playing in Montreal. (Heproclaimed his innocence and is expected to talk to tour investigators laterthis month.)

But long beforel'affaire Davydenko, tennis was ripe for a betting scandal. Players operateindependently, beyond the prying eyes of teammates or team staff. A five-setmatch can easily turn on one slightly shanked backhand or the sudden onset ofcramps. The Australian Open has betting windows on-site, bookmakers work ashort walk from Wimbledon's grounds, and one of the sport's most storiedmatches—the 1973 Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean King and BobbyRiggs—is still dogged by rumors that Riggs, a longtime hustler, made a bundleby betting on King.

Ever since therise in Internet betting threw the result of a 2003 match between future propoker player Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Fernando Vicente into question, tennis hastried to build what ATP officials call "a wall" around the game. Yetevery player represents a potential entry point. Both Tursunov and Tipsarevicsaid that they didn't report their suspicious conversations to ATP officials.Their attitude isn't rare. Odd as it seems, the same players who complain aboutthieves in the Wimbledon locker room haven't been nearly as panicked abouttheir integrity. "I can say, 'Somebody called me,'" Tursunov said,"but what are they going to do?"

On Friday, DeVilliers announced that the ATP board would push for a rule stipulating thatplayers must report even the slightest whiff of attempted tampering or facepenalties. The organization had better do more than push, though. Anytime youhave billions being bet on human beings, corruption is a given. Without theplayers' full commitment here, tennis doesn't stand a chance.

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