Both Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams will play in the finals of the Australian Open this weekend, but the main story coming out of Melbourne over the past two weeks has been the controversy surrounding allegations of rampant match-fixing in tennis.
On Wednesday, the NYT’s Ben Rothenberg published a first-person account of a brief and bizarre online correspondence he had with a Russian man who claimed to be part of the shadowy world of tennis gambling and match-fixing. Rothenberg is explicitly sceptical of the man and his claims, but the piece is nevertheless illuminating and deserves to be read in its entirety because it sheds light on the sketchy figures lurking on the fringes of the sport.
One especially noteworthy section comes when this man tells Rothenberg about the different prices a tennis player might make for throwing a match, or a set, or a point, and so forth.
He also claimed to know the rough prices of various fixes on the menu, which I couldn’t independently corroborate. Buying a service break at a Futures event cost $300 to $500, he said. A set was $1,000 to $2,000, and a match was $2,000 to $3,000.
It was more expensive to fix an outcome on the next tier, the Challenger level, with sets and matches running in the $10,000-to-$15,000 range, he said.
On the ATP and WTA Tours, a single set could cost $25,000. A match was in the neighbourhood of $100,000.
Many of the tournaments in which this man alleged to Rothenberg that match-fixing was taking place were tournaments with very little prize money between players even the most devout tennis fans wouldn’t ever recognise. Even Rothenberg, arguably the most well-informed tennis journalist working today, didn’t recognise many of the players’ names.
Still, the stench of match-fixing has been strong at the Australian Open.
Not long after BuzzFeed and the BBC published a bombshell report of match-fixing prior to the start of the tournament, the New York Times reported that a popular betting website had suspending activity after an unusually large swell of betting activity came in prior to a seemingly random first-round mixed-doubles match of the Australian Open.
Lleyton Hewitt, the former world no. 1, furiously denied allegations that he was among the anonymous players linked to match-fixing by BuzzFeed and the BBC. Djokovic said in a press conference that he was once offered $200,000 to throw a match. Tennis officials announced an independent body would investigate allegations.
Each subsequent report and story that has come out about match-fixing in tennis has resulted in more confusion than clarity on the issue. One problem is that the phrase “professional tennis” blankets hundreds of thousands of matches taking place on many different levels all over the world.
Match-fixing at a Futures event or ATP Challenger Series tournament might very likely occur with regularity, but is roughly the equivalent of something similar happening in low-level minor league baseball game. This is (obviously) still unethical and illegal, but a lot different than a match in the main draw of Wimbledon. Many players and writers have wondered if the scandal has deserved the attention it’s received.
With point-per-point betting happening across the world, on matches in bottom-tier Futures tournaments where a first-round loser would collect as little as $98, is it any wonder that match-fixing is occurring? And is there any way of stopping it?
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