During the last 16 round of the Polish Open in August 2007, world number four Nikolay Davydenko faced off against 87 seventh seeded Martin Vasallo Agruello in what should have been another regular, mundane match of tennis in which the clear favourite Daydenko dominated the first set 6-2 and was leading during second. That was to change when all of a sudden Davydenko’s game began to falter, citing a medical timeout he claimed of an injured ankle and foot which eventually caused the Russia to retire early into the third set with Agruello progressing into the quarter finals. Plausible right?
Yet what appeared to be an unassuming match on the court, behind the scenes at the online gambling platform Betfair a suspiciously high quantity of pre-match bets pinned the underdog Agruello to win the match. Even as he convincingly lost the first set the odds remained in his favour with bets on the Argentine ballooning to a staggering $7,310,429 as the game progressed. Comparing this to a similar fixture at the tournament between Tommy Roberdo and Steve Darcis with Betfair bets amounting to only $3 million, foul play was sensed with the company suspending all transactions immediately.
Although Davydenko and Agruello were cleared of all wrong doing a year later in 2008 by the Association of Tennis professionals (AFT), the inquiry remains controversial to this day. However, this game would ignite intense media speculation amongst the tennis community regarding a corrosive scandal which highlights the systemic vulnerability of the industry as a whole. Match Fixing.
Since the inception of sport there has always been those whose who’ve seeked to manipulate the result of a match for personal, often financial gain regardless of what’s been played. Yet tennis appears to be a rather susceptible sport to the facets of illegal gambling giving it only takes one player to be corrupted for the fabric of the game to deteriorate.
As seen by the Davydenko case startling figures suggests how deep illegal wagering has penetrated the sport. A report in 2016 by the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) flagged 16 players ranked in the top 50 over the last decade that have been suspected of match fixing, yet had not faced any repercussions from the AFT. In fact the epidemic of match fixing is visible in all aspects and at all levels of the sport, permeating from junior professional tournaments all the way up to grand slams such as Wimbledon, where a single pay off is enticing enough for some to risk the reward.
Especially for upstart and growing players that sweet financial incentive they’ll receive to lose a game lures them into this deadly underworld of tennis. For those competing in the lower brackets players often find themselves losing money travelling across their respective countries grinding it out in tournaments, often racking up huge travel, accommodation and other expenses which often outweigh the prize pool players would receive. This often necessitates a second job for many players to maintain their costs. In some instances rigging a game for your opponent could land you earning as much or even more from what the winnings could offer you, hastily jetting off to the next event and repeating the process.
This potentially lucrative opportunity which lures an unknown amount of players exacerbates a fundamental crisis decaying tennis. Where the temptation of becoming a fixer, someone who arranges bets between players and gambling syndicates is tempting enough to overpower their commitment to playing the sport they supposedly love. And in a game where the top 5 tennis players in the world earn nearly $8 million per year compared to that of around $7,000 for that of the 500th ranked, the prospect of gambling to earn a living isn’t so preposterous when there’s everything to gain in a sport with such a gargantuan wage disparity.
Whilst it’s naive to think that match fixing will one day be abolished from the sport, the harsh reality is that this closeted element of the game has always and always will persist . In the end it is the responsibility for those in charge to make a stance to discourage players from engaging in illegal activity and to limit its scale whether it be at the Polish open or simply a junior competition.