Serving scandal: How India is no stranger to fixing in tennis

  • HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 18, 2016 12:54 IST
Serena Williams of the US (top) plays a return during her women's singles match against Italy's Camila Giorgi on day one of the 2016 Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 18, 2016. (AFP Photo)

Austrian player Daniel Koellerer’s name can be instantly recalled as he was banned from tennis in 2011 over allegations of match fixing. According to the BBC, he claims he was offered a bribe to fix matches at India’s lone ATP tournament at Chennai. Koellerer played the Chennai Open singles in 2009.

He lost in the first round to top seed Nikolay Davydenko, the world number five at the time. As to whether they played true or whether the outcome was influenced, would be far more open to speculation if Davydenko had lost. As such, it’s difficult to find credence in Koellerer’s insinuation. However, Davydenko did earn a notorious question mark on his integrity when the ATP launched an enquiry in his August 2007 match against Argentine Martin Vassallo Arguello. Subsequently, nothing concrete came out of the allegations.

Coming to Indian players, this correspondent was told in confidence years ago that some of our guys have also been betting. However, this did not have sinister overtones as it was learnt that they were using the information collected from the tour to bet on others’ matches. There were rumours that one doubles player bet on his own matches when he knew that injury had anyway hobbled his chances of winning. But like in all such instances, it is impossible to prove any wrong doing without access to players’ bank accounts .

Read | Match-fixing claims rock Australian Open

In 2008, Mahesh Bhupathi claimed that he had been approached to fix a Davis Cup match. This was followed by another Davis Cup player and Asian gold medallist Gaurav Natekar claiming he was asked what it would take for him to throw the doubles final at the Hiroshima Asian Games 1994. Natekar won the gold with Leander Paes.

Better ranked players are not supposed to lose – that’s the basic numbers game that betting sites consider before offering odds. The stakes go higher in case the player in question is a proven winner with a credible record.

A lot of players on the ATP circuit bet on matches. However, they don’t do it using their own name even in countries where betting is allowed. The basic premise for most betting is insider knowledge. The locker room in tournaments is not a place where secrets can be kept easily. Especially not when it comes to a player’s physical makeup on a given day. When X knows that Y is not going to be able to play his best and is only showing up to collect his prize money, X tips off his people to bet against Y. This kind of betting falls in the twilight zone -- its illegality may be obvious to betting sites and the ATP as it is based on insider knowledge but for players it’s a grey area.

Read | ‘Match-fixing exists at top level of world tennis, including Wimbledon’

A number of players float in and out of the tennis tour’s money churner -- the singles game. Then, they get pushed to the less-lucrative doubles game as most find out they just don’t have the ability or physical strength to win in singles. Many become coaches, agents and even tournament organisers. They may no longer be on top of their game, but their access to information stays solid. The inclination to bet knowing the odds are in your favour is hard to resist for those on the fringes of the game. That even top players and Grand Slam winners are doing the same is what’s shocking in the documents accessed by the BBC and Buzzfeed.

It is well known that the mandarins of sport do not let negative information become public. Revelations about top players being involved in fixing would ruin the image of any discipline. There are persistent rumours that tennis suppresses data on doping. Its inability to take the 2008 investigation on match fixing to a logical conclusion suggests that questions over transparency will always remain.

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