Tennis has been faced with accusations of match fixing for years: from the infamous match between Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo Arguello in 2007 that first introduced much of the public to questions about the integrity of matches in some smaller tournaments to suspensions levied against two players earlier this year, there always seems to be something lurking beneath the sport’s surface.
Those concerns were aired again this week in a story by The Daily Beast, which once again attempted to delve through the information out there about tennis and figure out just how much of a problem match fixing is for the sport.
One 2014 study cited in that story estimated that one percent of all first-round tournament matches might be fixed, which would mean more than 20 matches a year were influenced by gamblers; other estimates and guesses have suggested that multiple matches per week could be fixed, though that’s still a very tiny percentage of all professional tennis matches.
Low Pay Leads to Temptation for Lower-Ranked Players
What makes tennis so vulnerable to match fixing?
There are a combination of factors, many of which help explain why the problem seems most prominent at the lower levels of the professional ranks.
First, there’s the obvious fact that tennis (at least in singles play) is an individual sport.
There is only one person that needs to be bribed in order to get them to throw a match (the same issue that leads many to fear widespread integrity issues in boxing and other combat sports), and there are no teammates or substitutes to pick up the slack for a player who is struggling.
That said, nobody is accusing Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal of fixing matches at Wimbledon.
For one, there’s the fact that these matches have an intense amount of scrutiny on them; perhaps even more importantly, though, star tennis players are extremely well compensated, meaning it would cost anyone attempting to fix a match at that level an exorbitant amount of money, if it could be done at all.
That’s not to say that nobody tries. Even Novak Djokovic has told a tale of being offered $100,000 to fix a match back in 2006.
But players on the Challenger Tour or other low-ranked competitors aren’t making nearly that much money, and may even lose cash in a given tournament after travel and coaching expenses are taken into consideration.
That makes them prime targets for gamblers looking to fix a match.
Spot Betting Allows Fixing Without Impacting Match Result
Another problem is the fact that gamblers don’t even have to fix an entire match to find ways to profit.
Because many gambling sites and bookmakers offer betting on sets or even individual games, players can reach agreements to allow certain events to take place at the right times to satisfy gamblers while still playing to win overall.
“One particular common fix would be to split the first two sets to a predetermined script, then play the third set fairly to determine which player progresses,” sports modeler Ian Dorward told Slate earlier this year.
The Tennis Integrity Unit is the body tasked with rooting out such issues, and they have sometimes made examples of players. In March, Elie Rousset and Walkter Trusendi each received six-month suspensions and fines for violations of anti-corruption rules, though not for match-fixing.
But no matter what the Integrity Unit does, it is unlikely to be able to change the culture that allows lower-ranked players to be incentivized to aid gamblers who want to make sure bets.
That would require a complete change in how compensation works up and down the various levels of professional tennis, something that probably won’t happen any time soon.