Until recently, tennis maintained a proud reputation as a bastion of integrity among those who pay attention to the sordid world of match-fixing. In a game which is almost universally known as a “gentleman’s sport” and which is associated with strawberries and cream on a hot summer’s day in London, it was at one time hard to imagine that there could lurk anything as distasteful as crime and bribery.
That myth has been shattered in recent years as allegations of match-fixing have risen to the surface – particularly in Europe.
This month, European investigators revealed that they were reaching the end of a months-long investigation involving a massive match-fixing ring across Europe, allegedly working with dozens of low-ranked tennis players in small tournaments.
The suspected head of the ring is an Armenian based in Belgium and he is accused of running a syndicate that fixed literally hundreds of tennis matches. What is even worse about this story is that more than 100 tennis players from around the continent have allegedly been caught up in the corruption and are believed to have fixed their games in return for small sums of money.
Spanish Police Swoop in on Suspects
It was reported earlier this month that the Spanish police have linked 68 people, including 28 professional players, to the international match fixing group, which was dismantled by authorities in October last year.
The Spanish Civil Guard arrested 15 people in a series of raids that took place in coordination with Europol and the National High Court of Spain. During the raids, hundreds of thousands of Euros were seized, along with electronic devices, credit cards, a shotgun, luxury vehicles and implicating documents.
The Independent reported that in a statement made by the Civil Guard, the Spanish officers proved that the match-fixing group has been in operation since February 2017 and estimate that the group earned millions of euros through the operation.
The names of the detained Spanish suspects have not been released.
What Triggered the Spanish Investigation?
The alleged ringleader of the syndicate, a 28-year-old known as Maestro, was arrested in Belgium last June and still remains in custody. He faces charges of organized crime, match fixing, money laundering and forgery charges.
In 2017, the Tennis Integrity Unit suspended 36-year-old Spanish player Marc Fornell-Mestres from professional tennis in relation to alleged crimes involving “breaches of the Tennis Anti-Corruption program.”
The Spanish authorities decided to unravel Fornell-Mestres’ involvement in Spanish match fixing, and he has now been accused of acting as the link between players and the Armenian crime ring.
Fornell-Mestres was ranked 1007th in singles and 772nd in doubles at the end of last year.
How the Match Fixing Group Operated
We can learn a lot about how the match-fixing ring allegedly operated through the Spanish Civil Guard statement.
“A group of Armenian individuals used a professional player who served as the link between them and the other members of the network,” the statement read.
“Once the bribe had been paid, the Armenians headed for the match venues to use their overwhelming muscle to make sure that the player kept their end of the deal. They then gave the order for bets to be laid both nationally and internationally.”
“Those currently under arrest ran the money through different accounts before finally transferring it to those under their control, always using false names,” said police. “They are suspected of membership of a criminal organization, corrupting private individuals (in the sporting world), fraud, money laundering, illegal possession of firearms and identity theft.”
What is emerging from these months of investigation is that the match-fixing ring was a well-oiled machine organized via encrypted messaging. The Maestro employed mules who, for a few Euros, placed bets on behalf of the syndicate. These wagers were small enough to slip under the radars employed by sports betting watchdogs, but ultimately large enough to bring in millions of euros to the syndicate over time.
The syndicate targeted lower-level professional tennis tournaments. It is estimated that some 100 players worked for the syndicate over the years by fixing matches, sets or games. In exchange, they would earn payments of anything between 500 to 3,000 Euros. An official told the Associated Press that Europol’s impression was that match-fixing was very commonplace and that hundreds of matches were probably fixed over the years.
Fears of Match-Fixing Across Europe
The recent raids and arrests in Spain were supported by Europol, a support service for the law enforcement agencies of the EU Member States.
Following Spain’s example, French authorities have been questioning those who they suspect may have been linked to the Maestro and his ring. NECN reported that sources close to the investigation revealed that four French players have been taken into custody. One of them has allegedly told investigators that he fixed over 20 matches for the Maestro.
The four French players were already named by the French newspaper, L’Euqipe this week as: 21 year-old Jules Okala, 25 year-old Mick Lescure, 31 year-old Yannick Thivant and 28 year-old Jerome Inzerillo.
The four are part of the dozen or so French players who will be questioned by the country’s authorities in coming weeks.
Europol says that while France is one of the countries that was hardest hit by the syndicate, there are still many other countries where investigations are underway, including Belgium, Germany, Slovakia, the Netherlands and Bulgaria. Both players and managers will be questioned. In addition, the ring did not confine its operations to Europe, and investigations have also spread to Egypt, Chile and the United States.
There is genuine concern that should some of the players climb higher up the tennis rating ranks, they could draw others into similar syndicate rings and infect the bigger tennis tournaments such as the US Open, the Australian Open or Wimbledon.
Independent Review Panel Uncovered “Tsunami” of Tennis Match Fixing
In January 2016, a joint BBC and BuzzFeed News investigation uncovered suspected illegal betting in tennis. The investigation exposed, among other things, secret files showing evidence of widespread suspected match fixing at all levels over the past decade, including the suspected involvement of 16 players who ranked in the top 50.
Following the publication of the investigation, an Independent Review Panel was set up and in April last year, it finally published its findings. While no evidence of cover-up by the Tennis Integrity Unit or other governing bodies was found, nor were any top-level players implicated in match-fixing, the report nevertheless discovered a “tsunami” of match-fixing at lower-level tennis events.
More than 100 players and 3,200 tennis professionals were surveyed in the review – which is said to have cost over £20 million to fund. The findings showed that there was significant corruption in the “lower and middle levels of the sport”. Adam Lewis QC, who led the panel, called these tournaments “a fertile breeding ground for breaches of integrity.”
Among the findings and recommendations of the panel was that October until December were considered match-fixing season,” that investigations into Grand Slam match-fixing suspicious were “insufficient” and that much work was needed to reorganize tennis’ anti-corruption bodies.
Why Would Professional Players Fix Matches?
One of the more interesting questions asked by the independent panel was why professional tennis players would be sucked up into the criminal world of match fixing in the first place. One of the reasons pointed out was that lower-ranked players struggle to make a living from the sport and may even be incentivized not to perform well in certain events when travel and other expenses overshadow potential prize money or when multiple events overlap.
According to Lewis, “only the top 250 females and 350 male players are making enough money to break even before coaching costs, yet there are 15,000 nominally professional players. It’s a small step for a player who already intends to lose for other reasons to then bet or inform others of his or her intentions so as to make enough money to continue playing.”
The panel also pointed out that since the International Tennis Federation began selling official live scoring data in 2012, it has become easier to bet on lower-ranked tennis matches. This was proven by the number of alerts to suspicious matches which rose from three in 2012 (before the ITF sold live scoring data) to 240 in 2016.
What Can be Done About Tennis Match Fixing?
Many of the recommendations made by the Independent Review Panel involved the serious need for change within the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU). There is the need, for example, to increase the number of staff, as well as to pick a new board that is independent from governing bodies.
Other key recommendations include:
- Streamlining the disciplinary process to make it more cost-effective
- Make greater use of criminal law in dealing with corruption
- Eliminate sponsorships of tennis events and international governing bodies by sports betting operators
- Reassess the sale of live betting data to sports betting companies
- Consider a fundamental restructuring of professional tennis to provide better pay and opportunities for lower-level pros in order to realign players’ incentives with those of tennis itself
disciplinary process should become more streamlined and cost-effective, and make greater use of criminal law.
One of more contentious recommendations made by the panel was that tennis organizations stop accepting sponsorships and ads from betting companies.
Late last year, the main tennis governing bodies, the International Tennis Federation, the ATP, the WTA and the four Grand Slam tournaments issued a statement, saying that they would work collectively to prioritize timely implementation of the panel’s final integrity and governance recommendations.”