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Steve Flink: Taking a Gamble on Tennis

10/2/2007 2:25:00 AM


by Steve Flink

For a number of years now, reports have been circulating about accusations surrounding tennis players and gambling. The situation was worrisome and needed to be taken seriously, but it seemed like a distant problem, a far less threatening development than the growing conundrum of steroids. But in the last couple of months, the sport's landscape has been altered sweepingly. No longer can any of us ignore the mounting danger of gambling and the potential for players to be exposed to bribes connected with internet betting sites.

What has caused the alarm bells to ring louder? It started with the case of world No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko in August, who lost his match at an ATP Tour event in Poland under suspicious circumstances, retiring at 1-2 down in the final set against Martin Vassallo Arguello, then ranked No. 87 in the world. Davydenko claimed he retired in that contest to prevent a serious injury, but the British online gambling company Betfair received about $7 million in bets on that match. That was ten times more than the company anticipated and so they voided all bets on that match. The ATP Tour acted swiftly and began an investigation, while Davydenko proclaimed his innocence. That investigation goes on.

Meanwhile, several players have spoken up over the last week about their personal experiences with those attempting to lure them into deliberately losing matches by offering these competitors exorbitant bribes. Dmitry Tursunov, who was victorious at the Thailand Open in Bangkok on Sunday, allegedly told a Russian newspaper that he had been offered bribes on several occasions to tank matches in the past, and had refused. Meanwhile, Belgian players Gilles Elseneer and Dick Norman spoke of similar experiences. Elseneer claims he was approached by people who wanted him to lose his first round Wimbledon match on purpose in 2005 against Italy's Potito Starace. He was offered in the range of $100,000 to take a fall. He would not go along with that ugly scenario, and recorded a straight set triumph in that match.

The other Belgian to speak out was Dick Norman, who recalled being asked one year at Wimbledon to clue some people in on the physical and mental status of fellow competitors; in return he would have been rewarded handsomely for his information. Norman did not accept the offer. He must have recognized that it was fundamentally unacceptable to slip into that cynical world and therefore stood by his best instincts.

Undoubtedly, there are many other cases involving players who have been contacted by those in the gambling world. So far, thankfully, there has not been a demonstrable case of a player who has admitted to succumbing to a bribe. But that does not mean the threat of lower ranked players accepting dirty money will be washed away any time soon, or that some will not try to get away with taking bribes, hoping they won't get caught. That is the bad news. The good news is that there is a growing awareness of this issue among everyone in the tennis community. Now players, administrators, and tour officials can try to find a way to stand together and make certain that there will be no gambling crisis.

Any way you look at it, this dilemma can not be ignored. As Brad Gilbert told me during a telephone interview a few days ago, "It's a rough situation. This has only come into play with the internet gambling the last few years and I think it is only a European or off shore thing. It has become very prevalent in Europe and the rest of the world to bet on obscure tennis matches on these sites. I have been to Las Vegas a zillion times and the only betting they do on tennis there is on really big matches like the finals of a Slam. The integrity of the game for the fans is sacred. I feel it is nowhere near being a problem at the top of the game. The problem is near the middle down to the bottom of the game because on these sites they bet on everything including challenger events so they are going to have to really crack down. The fan wants to know that everything is on the up and up. They are paying customers. So they [the various governing bodies in the game] are going to have to do a better job of policing the situation to make sure there are no hangers on or people in the stands with computers."

In light of his well founded point that the lower ranked players are much easier targets for the internet gambling community, I wanted to know what Gilbert thinks about the Davydenko case. He responds, "I don't know anything about the facts of the case. I would like to think that the guy is a great player who is 4 in the world so you would think he is way above something like this. He is making way too much money to ever be involved in something like this. He has way too much to lose. I would like to think the guy is totally innocent. A guy ranked No. 280 in the world playing Challenger events that's got debts who is 27 years old is a lot different from a guy like Davydenko ranked in the top five in the world at the top of the game. It would be crazy for Davydenko to want to be involved."

That is a point well made. Perhaps Davydenko is indeed innocent and has been framed for some inexplicable reason. Or maybe some dark forces, figures from the Russian underworld, made Davydenko do something completely out of character. That episode remains a mystery which may not be solved for a while. In the mean time, the ATP, Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, ITF, and the four Grand Slam events must join forces to combat the gambling/bribery issue forcefully and effectively. As Gilbert contends, "At the lowest level, the tour is going to have to educate people to really look out for this. This is now a real priority. And a player has to know that if he or she ever gets involved or anybody else like their coach or their family, then there will be serious repercussions. So you can kind of put the fear of God in them.... They are going to have to put together some kind of special task force, with the ITF, ATP, and WTA all uniting to figure out exactly what they need to do, but I hope they take their time to get it right."

Apparently, that aligning of the entities is already in motion. That is a positive and necessary step. The game has too much going for it to allow this problem to spiral out of control. Gilbert is deeply disturbed that the heroics of the game's finest players have been overshadowed lately by the negativity of the stories in television and in major press outlets about internet gambling and players who are asked to compromise their integrity for big payoffs. As he says, "I would like to think that Federer and Nadal and Henin and all of these players who are doing great things would deserve better, because they do. We are talking about obscure situations, and that is robbing the tennis and the great part of the game and the fans when something like this is happening. That's what saddens me the most. But obviously there must be something to it for it to have gotten to this point."

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to the TennisChannel.com

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