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Game, set and match-fix: what more can be done to stop corruption in tennis?

Young Australian tennis player Oliver Anderson has been charged with match-fixing over a game in 2016. AAP/Lukas Coch

Game, set and match-fix: what more can be done to stop corruption in tennis?

The charges brought recently against reigning Australian Open junior champion Oliver Anderson, and the suspensions of three low-ranking Australian players for match-fixing, highlight the ongoing issue of corruption in tennis.

With tennis’ first Grand Slam of the year – the Australian Open – starting on Monday, what more can be done to stamp it out?

Scale of the problem

Tennis authorities maintain match-fixing occurs at an “incredibly small level”. However, they have conceded there has been a significant upswing in suspicious matches reported to them. “Alerts” rose from 14 in 2012 to 292 in 2016.

2016 was an especially notable year for match-fixing in tennis. It began with the joint BBC-Buzzfeed investigation in January that contained accusations of under-enforcement and complacency among tennis authorities. It ended in December, when Spanish police arrested 34 people – including six players – suspected of “being involved in a criminal betting organisation”.

It is difficult to be precise about the exact scale of match-fixing in tennis. But there is ample evidence that it is a significant issue:

  • The Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) handed out nine sanctions to officials and players involved in corrupt conduct in 2016.

  • Criminal prosecutions are under way against two players in Italy.

  • A New York Times journalist was provided accurate “tip-offs” of upcoming fixed scorelines.

  • Betting companies have internal lists of suspicious players.

  • Fan communities are now capable of capturing gifs and video of matchplay behaviour from players that coincides with irregular betting activity.

Incentives for corruption

As banned player Daniel Koellerer suggests, it is extremely easy for a corrupt player to over-hit the ball once or twice and fix the scoreline, thus personally netting $US50,000.

With the rise of online gambling and, in particular, unregulated gambling markets (which jointly turn over US$1 trillion a year), increasing financial reward is available for those who may seek to criminally corrupt tennis.

Male players ranked outside the top 100 struggle to make ends meet playing at lower Challenger and Futures-level tournaments. There, prize money can be as low as US$500, or US$98 for a first-round loser. A match-fixer may offer upwards of $3,000 to $15,000.

So, the financial incentives for corruption are clear.

What can be done?

With 120,000 matches per year globally involving hundreds of players and officials, and gambling syndicates ensuring there is an increasing financial reward, the problem of match-fixing in tennis is likely to persist.

Total eradication is unlikely. Therefore, the strategy becomes one of harm minimisation.

“Soft” measures such as increasing prizemoney for lower levels is a welcome development. This is especially because “hard” enforcement by public authorities is unlikely, owing to the difficulties in building successful prosecutions and the unlikelihood that national or state law enforcement would have the capacity to combat complex international gambling corruption.

There have only been a few instances to date of law-enforcement agencies pursuing match-fixing in Australia, Spain and Italy.

Therefore, tennis authorities must step forward. They did so in 2008 by establishing the TIU, an anti-corruption enforcement body funded by the sport’s peak bodies.

Tennis authorities are to be commended for taking steps to tackle the problem. However, the TIU has come under fire in the past for having weak enforcement, being “far too secretive”, ignoring information provided by betting companies, and being critically under-resourced.

The TIU also faces fundamental questions about being conflicted between uncovering corruption, while also being funded by the industry that would be damaged by any reputational fallout from its investigations.

Since the BBC-Buzzfeed investigation, the TIU has undergone several reforms. These include:

  • raising the number of investigative staff from four to ten;

  • encouraging more player education; and

  • launching an Independent Review Panel to audit its anti-corruption efforts.

However, the TIU would be wise to appreciate the need for crime control bodies to enhance their legitimacy through transparency and engagement with key stakeholders.

Like the police, or other non-governmental anti-corruption bodies such as Transparency International, being seen as a legitimate authority is a key precursor to being an effective enforcer of crime control. It would encourage co-operation as well as promote voluntary obedience to legal and moral norms.

Enhancing such legitimacy would involve weakening the TIU’s “cone of silence” and inviting oversight from more trusted and respected sources.

The TIU could enhance its legitimacy by forming a monitoring and deliberation body made up of a mix of key stakeholders. This could include current and former players, state or international law enforcement representatives, anti-corruption experts and a range of other interested parties that would enhance the TIU’s credibility through oversight and accountability.

If the TIU is to be considered a trusted and effective anti-corruption force, it must be aware of the need to improve its legitimacy.