Tennis Is Getting What It Deserves with Latest Match-Fixing Scandal

Greg CouchNational ColumnistJanuary 19, 2016

Novak Djokovic of Serbia plays Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland in Rod Laver Arena  during their semifinal at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Friday, Jan. 30, 2015. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
Lee Jin-man/Associated Press

If you have a major problem and you look the other way and pretend it never happened, or try to brush it under the rug, then you can count on one thing: The problem will still be there.    

The tennis world right now is aflame over an alleged match-fixing, gambling scandal that is ruining the first of its four annual parties, the Australian Open, and threatening the credibility of all of its star players and the sport itself. An investigation by BuzzFeed and the BBC analyzed the betting activity on 26,000 professional matches from 2009 to 2015 and found the field for the year's first major is littered with suspected match-fixers. At least one major singles champion is suspected of having lost matches on purpose for gamblers.

Shock! Outrage! But here's the thing:

Tennis is getting exactly what it deserves.

This isn't a shock and it's not even a surprise. It was inevitable. Why? Because tennis has a gambling problem, and its leaders are so tangled up in massive conflicts of interest and so inept about public relations that it didn't do anything about the problem when it could have and needed to.

"I would love to hear names," Roger Federer told reporters in his post-match press conference after his first-round victory in Australia. "Then at least it's concrete stuff and you can actually debate about it. Was it the player? Was it the support team? Who was it? Was it before? Was it a doubles player, a singles player? Which [Grand] Slam?"

Rick Rycroft/Associated Press

That's right, the report doesn't name names. BuzzFeed and the BBC say they couldn't publicly specify players because "without access to their phone, bank and computer records, it is not possible to determine whether they may have been personally taking part in match fixing."

What that does is put everyone under suspicion. The report says that at least one major singles champion is involved. Tennis has had just 19 major winners—seven men and 12 women—from 2009 to 2015. That includes Federer, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

All of their names are now in jeopardy. Is that unfair? You bet (pun intended). But the suspicion is tennis' fault.

Tennis conflicts of interest are causing the problem. Here's what I mean: Five years ago, in reaction to a lawsuit, then-CEO of IMG Ted Forstmann (who has since died) admitted to betting on tennis matches, including on his friend and then-IMG client, Roger Federer. Understand that IMG owns several important tennis tournaments and also serves as the agent for several top players. It is not just some outside entity; it is built into the power structure of the sport.

In the lawsuit, a man named Jim Agate, the owner of Agate Printing Inc., claimed Forstmann had used him to place extensive bets on sports, including a $40,000 bet on Federer to beat Nadal in the 2007 French Open final. The suit claimed that Forstmann told Agate, "Jim, I know what I'm doing. I just got off the phone with Federer."

I was the first reporter Agate granted an interview to. In an office in California, he played phone messages he had saved. A man who sounded exactly like Forstmann was instructing Agate, who had been golfing partners with Forstmann for years, to place thousands of dollars of bets on sports. Agate said Forstmann told him he had gotten inside information from Federer before his match with Nadal.

Federer was publicly upset that his name was being thrown into the mess.

At the time, Agate told me, "When people hear 'inside information,' they think I'm saying the match was fixed. I'm not."

Still, IMG is arguably the most powerful body in tennis, and its CEO is as close to tennis' owner as anyone can be. And what did ATP Tour officials do?

Nothing. The board discussed it and basically said if he did it again, there might be punishment.

By the way: One member of the board at the time was a senior vice president of IMG. One was an executive of the Tennis Channel, which is part-owned by IMG. One was a former player. Guess who his agent was?

See? The men's tour, the players, the TV network, the agents, the tournaments…they're all rolled up into one incestuous mess.

In 2007, after top-10 player Nikolay Davydenko was accused of throwing a match, tennis formed something called the Tennis Integrity Unit. The TIU has spent years posting signs in locker rooms about gambling and busting low, low-level players no one has ever heard of.

MIKHAIL METZEL/Associated Press

That's why this newest gambling scandal is the one tennis deserves. It chose not to clean itself up at the higher levels.

You think that's because it's any cleaner at those levels? Djokovic said at his post-match press conference in Australia that gamblers offered him $200,000, which he rejected, to throw a match in 2007.

Murray said in his post-match press conference that this scandal could be good because it will force tennis to do something.

Don't count on it. In the past few years, tennis tournaments have had gambling houses as title sponsors. Many tennis fans know that if they want to watch the small-time tournaments that aren't on TV, you can find them streaming on gambling-house websites. No one stops it.

They allow gambling to be part of the sport's culture.

Now, the big names and the sport itself are on trial in the court of public opinion. Sometimes, you get what you deserve.


Greg Couch covers tennis for Bleacher Report. Follow him @gregcouch.