Sports Law Blog
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Sunday, November 25, 2007
Throwing Tennis Matches

The New York Times reported Sunday on several investigations into possible throwing of matches at the behest of gamblers, including a withdrawal loss by world-No. 4 Nikolay Devydenko in Poland last summer. The trigger for the investigation was irregular betting activity on the match through Belfair, an English online sports exchange. Belfair voided the bets on the match. Its records showed that nine betting accounts in Russia (Davydenko's home country) stood to make $ 1.5 million if Davydenko lost. The story mentions several players who have acknowledged being approached about tanking matches and describes the sense among players that tanking, or at least efforts by gamblers to approach players with offers to fix matches, happens frequently. Right now, no one is naming names. The ATP has compiled a list of 140 "suspicious" matches since 2002.

The common assumption is that mainstream professional sports are not fixable because players make so much money that there is no incentive to throw games. But there are some things about tennis that call this into question. First, while the lack of financial incentive perhaps is true at the very top levels (Davydenko notwithstanding), lower-ranked players do not make the kind of money that automatically immunize them to temptation. The players mentioned in the story as having been approached by gamblers generally are ranked in the second-50 or outside of the top-100.

Second, tennis is an individual sport, so a player can throw a match without having to get cooperation from teammates. Third, Patrick McEnroe is quoted as saying that tennis is a very easy game to manipulate, that a player could throw a match and the untrained eye never would know it.

Fourth, and related, tennis is a long season with a lot of travel and a lot of nagging and not-so-nagging injuries (Davydenko retired from the suspicious match because of a foot injury); even the best players are going to have letdown matches, losing in the early rounds to lower-ranked players in more-obscure tournaments. This last point has two effects. First, it provides a temptation to players--"If I am feeling so exhausted or nicked up to play my best, why not take the money from a gambler?" Second, it makes an otherwise-inexplicable loss less suspicious, except for the strange gambling activity.

Finally, tennis is an international game. Thus, the risks of gambling have to be considered not solely from the standpoint of the American economy but also from the still-developing economies of former Soviet-bloc nations, notably Russia. Several of the stories about attempted fixing happened at events in Russia. This international flavor makes enforcement an interesting question. Both the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the International Tennis Federation (ITF) are investigating for possible administrative enforcement. But there is a question of what country, if any, could enforce its laws against such activity and against whom.

Worth watching the story.


Being a boxing fan, I would like to point out that most of the factors you cite apply to boxing too. Boxing also has a reputation for attracting various less-savory characters. Yet for all that, there have been very, very few "dives" in recent decades.

Anonymous Peter -- 11/25/2007 10:17 PM  

Other aspects of professional tennis also contribute to the problem, including appearance money. Many of the top players take appearance money to show up at tournaments (allowing the tournament to publicize their appearance and thus sell tickets), often tournaments in which they have no real interest in playing and in which they promptly lose. I believe it also used to be (maybe it has been changed) possible to throw out certain results in computing rankings (thus, no harm/no foul with a bad loss).

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/25/2007 11:34 PM  


Excellent point that I thought about while I was writing, then forgot to include. But if appearance fees go only to the top players, who are at least far less likely to tank, I am not sure how much it contributes to what we presently understand as the problem.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 11/25/2007 11:45 PM  

Hi Howard, I think you're right, it may not contribute directly to tanking for cash, but I think it may contribute in part to an "atmosphere" in tennis that has grown over the years, which has devalued non-slam wins and would lead to a lower ranked player concluding it is not such a bad thing to tank for cash. In other words, if a top player takes an appearance fee and then dogs it or fakes an injury (fairly common and almost never disciplined by the tour), why is it so wrong for me to get my cash? I'm in tennis' target market - I've been playing and following tennis since the late sixties - yet for the last half dozen years I've paid zero attention to non-Slam tournaments; in some part, because I do not believe wholeheartedly in the integrity of the results and the efforts expended by the players in those tournaments. {As an aside, I also feel that exhibitions, e.g., the latest Federer/Sampras matches, also corrupt the integrity of the game. Besides wondering whether the result was, let's say, negotiated ahead of time, and devaluing the reputation of Federer, it strikes me as yet another reason a lower player may feel he/she is entitled to some extra cash.]

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/26/2007 11:09 AM  

The ATP rankings are a mess (different types of rankings: event and race rankings) and make it ok to lose in certain events, since not results count toward the rankings. From the ATP site: “Players eligible to enter the Grand Slams and ATP Masters Series events must count those events and their best five other results from the International Series events . . . . . . results from Challenger events do not count towards a player's ATP Race position”. In other words, many results are thrown out of the calculation of player rankings, so if one tanks a match/fakes an injury, it may have zero impact on one’s ranking. The purpose, no doubt, of this system is to encourage players to play in lesser tournaments. However, it also removes a disincentive to tanking.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/26/2007 11:23 AM  

Finally, I think this points out that in order to minimize the incentives to cheat, a league needs to make losses matter. In other words, a betting scandal is more likely to occur in a league, such as the NBA, with lots of "meangingless" regular season games or on a tour such as tennis, where losses are not factored into rankings or not fully factored into rankings.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 11/26/2007 11:32 AM  

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