Imagine the following scenario. The match, in a far-flung outpost on the International Tennis Federation’s Futures circuit, is finely poised at 5-5 in the final set tie-break. Yet in a blink of an eye it is over. First the local favourite smashes an ace. Then, a few seconds later, he hits an unreturnable winner. The handful of spectators watching knew the match was about to finish. But those following it on a live-scores feed – including the world’s bookmakers – are nearly a minute behind the action. As far as they know it is still 5-5.
Only a select few know what is going on: the umpire, who has deliberately delayed updating the scores on his tablet for up to a minute, and the unscrupulous gamblers who have bribed him to do so.
The sting is in. Quickly, the umpire sends a text message to the gamblers alerting them of the real score. Which gives them just enough time to place bets – not too much to be noticed – with various bookmakers.
These gamblers know they cannot lose, at least in this situation. But the same cannot be said about tennis, which is again facing scrutiny after the Guardian’s revelations that two tennis umpires have been secretly banned, and four others face being thrown out of the sport for life if found guilty of corruption.
We have become used to stories of players fixing matches. Subconsciously, though, we expect that umpires will always uphold the integrity of their sport. One senior tennis insider told the Guardian these revelations were a “watershed moment, because this affects the heart and the soul of the game”.
The one consolation for tennis is that this happened on the Futures Tour, the third rung of the men’s professional ladder. It is a long way from the ATP and Challenger tours and the glittering grand slam events. At these lower levels, the top seed is likely to be outside the world’s top 200. Sometimes there aren’t even ballboys and girls, and when a player hits a shot into the net they have to retrieve the ball themselves.
The total prize money can also be as little as $10,000 – not a lot when it has to be shared by 32 singles players and a doubles’ event – although women’s futures events usually attract a higher level of player and greater prize money because they have no Challenger Tour.
Speak to any integrity expert and usually they say that corruption is about motive and opportunity. The Futures Tour offers both. The umpires are paid peanuts. There is very little security, which makes it easier for the corrupt to do the corrupting. And there is rarely a live television feed, which makes it harder for bookmakers and sporting integrity officials to know precisely what is going on.
Ian Dorward, who worked in the tennis department of the bookmaker Stan James before becoming a professional gambler, told the Guardian that many of the big firms would take three-figure bets on Futures matches without blinking an eye. That does not sound like a lot, but with multiple bets and multiple accounts it can quickly add up.
Dorward, an expert on Futures tennis, also admitted that it was not uncommon for matches to be partly fixed, so that players agreed to share the first two sets before playing properly to win the match in the third set.
“You see bets on set winners and set correct scores,” he added. “A lot of the time, it was players scripting first two sets, and playing out the final set. The aim of all the players at that level is to get points to move up the rankings, so they would fix the first two sets to make a bit of money on the side. So they would agree I’ll win the first set 7-6, you win the second set 6-3, and have a bit of money on set correct score, arrange.”
Some fear that the ITF’s $70m Sportradar deal to provide live tennis data inadvertently has not helped the situation – because it has led to more live scores being sent across the world in real time, more bookmakers offering prices, and a new opportunity for those looking to cheat – although Sportradar and the ITF strongly dispute this.
Perhaps a greater problem is that the ITF has lacked enough clear-eyed leadership in this area.
A small snippet from the recent Australian Open. After questions were raised about whether tennis’s integrity unit (TIU) was doing enough to catch cheats, the heads of the grand slam events, the men’s and women’s tours and the ITF met in Melbourne to discuss what needed to be done. According to one person present, the ITF appeared not to grasp the full extent of the problem – although it disputes this. It took the Association of Tennis Professionals chairman, Chris Kermode to remind everyone in the room that these issues required decisive action. The next day an independent review into the TIU was announced.
Kermode realises that the game has changed, and that tennis has to strive harder to ensure it tackles corruption at all levels and to be as transparent as possible. The days and weeks ahead will show whether the ITF can adjust to this vibrant new wavelength.