With stars such as Lleyton Hewitt indiscriminately caught up in the fallout from the BBC-BuzzFeed investigation into fixing, experts raise concerns over how the analysis was carried out
Ten days have passed since BuzzFeed and the BBC detonated a 9,000-word report alleging “widespread” match-fixing “in the upper echelons” of men’s tennis, and the suspicions and insinuations continue to linger like a stink bomb.
During the Australian Open Lleyton Hewitt, one of the game’s most tenacious and admired scrappers, was forced to deny he was a secret cheat after the final moments of his 19-year singles’ career. The Dutch player Robin Hasse was accused of corruption on Twitter based on no evidence. And a mixed doubles match on Sunday was also called into question by the bookmakers Pinnacle although others disputed whether there were suspicious betting patterns. Meanwhile the public is left wondering just who – or what – it can believe. As the ATP chairman Chris Kermode put it when an independent review into tennis’s anti-corruption practices was announced in Australia: “We are in a toxic environment for sport at the moment.”
Toxic and, in Hewitt’s case, dangerously indiscriminate. The former Wimbledon and US Open champion was not named by BuzzFeed, nor its reporting partner, the BBC, in a list of 15 players it had found “who regularly lost matches in which heavily lopsided betting appeared to substantially shift the odds – a red flag for possible match-fixing”. This claim was based on BuzzFeed’s own data analysis of changes to bookmakers’ odds in 27,000 ATP matches since 2009. However, its decision to make its data available to the public, albeit with the player names replaced by 64 digit codes, allowed tennis experts to decipher Hewitt as one of the men it was talking about.
Suddenly Hewitt found himself facing trial by algorithm. “I know my name’s been thrown into it,” he admitted. “I don’t think anyone here would think I’ve done anything corrupt or match-fixing. It’s just absurd. I think anyone throwing my name out there makes the whole thing an absolute farce.” Tellingly, no one else is pointing the finger. Ian Dorward, a professional tennis gambler who previously worked on the other side of the fence for a bookmaker, analysed eight of Hewitt’s allegedly suspicious matches and found no evidence of wrongdoing.
As Dorward put it: “As much as I appreciate BuzzFeed releasing their data, they must have known that it would be possible to identify the players from it.”
Other betting experts contacted by the Guardian agreed. As one put it: “Hewitt’s inclusion instinctively made no sense at all, as he didn’t fit the profile. He was far too wealthy, wasn’t a name that had ever been linked to fixing, and had far too much to lose in terms of reputation.” And yet here he was, being forced to defend it. It was an avoidable mistake too. Anyone with a passing interest in tennis would have known that Hewitt was particularly difficult for bookmakers to price up during the latter stages of his career. He often didn’t play for long periods. He suffered repeated injuries.
And, towards the end, only a few places – Australia and the US Open in particular – brought out his very best. Clued-up professional gamblers knew this. So they backed against the Australian when appropriate, often changing the betting odds.
Does this mean all of the BBC-BuzzFeed report should be questioned? No. Much of it tallies with what people within the game have said for years. It was right to warn that the Tennis Integrity Unit, set up in 2008, is not catching enough cheats – although whether that is due to it having just five staff, or institutional timidity for fear of being sued, is disputed.
It was also correct to warn that tennis has a problem with match-fixing. As a former tennis trader at a major global bookmaker told the Guardian: “Tennis is probably the dirtiest sport I worked on that didn’t involve Chinese or Filipino markets. We always had to be really careful. We were always saying: ‘Don’t be run over.’ If something feels fishy, take the market down and protect yourself. That’s how it works.”
This particular firm had a list of players who they were highly suspicious of. And they were more wary when two players from the same country faced each other. But he was emphatic that, at the top level, the sport had got cleaner.
One professional gambler the Guardian spoke to, on condition of anonymity, also reeled off a list of suspicious players and matches, with evidence of strange betting patterns. But he said that after the infamous Nikolay Davydenko versus Martin Vassallo Argüello encounter in 2007, which Betfair refused to pay out on because the price movements were so strange, the resulting publicity led to less of it happening on the main ATP tour. Tennis’s governing bodies investigated the match, found no evidence of rule-breaking by either player.
“There was a resurgence of this sort of massed, blatant fixing in 2010, notably at the two Russian events, but that was like a last hurrah and a lot of the fixers have now retired,” he said. “It’s much, much rarer now, at least on the main tour – the fixers now focus on Challenger events.
“As a general summary, fixing is drastically less common on the main tour than it was five years ago, and it in turn was less common than five years before that, he added. “The fixers haven’t gone away though, they’ve moved down to Challengers. I’d hesitate to credit the tennis authorities with that at all – on fixing as well as doping they are almost universally useless – it seems to be more the result of changes in the gambling markets.”
When the Wimbledon chairman and head of the sport’s integrity board Phillip Brook was asked about the BBC/BuzzFeed investigation on Wednesday he replied: “I was disappointed in the programme. I don’t think we felt it revealed anything new.”
That doesn’t mean players on the main ATP Tour aren’t match-fixing, of course. Often you hear the same names over again. One reasonably well-known star crops up repeatedly. But when BuzzFeed claims, in its opening salvo, that it has “secret files exposing evidence of widespread match-fixing by players at the upper levels of world tennis” some believe it is adding too much topspin to the story.
The website alleges that a core group of 16 players who have been ranked in the top 50 over the past decade were repeatedly reported to authorities over suspicious betting patterns in their matches, including “winners of singles and doubles titles at grand slams”. That latter claim deserves closer scrutiny, given the list of men’s grand slam winners is not a long one. The BBC’s report only refers to “winners of grand slams” which might indicate a subtle difference.
The view of Richard Ings, the executive vice-president of rules and competitions at the ATP from 2001 and 2005, is worth noting. As Ings, who set up tennis’s first anti-corruption programme, told the Guardian: “In professional tennis, unusual betting patterns happen regularly. But a match with a suspicious betting pattern is not indicative of match-fixing. More investigation must take place, including phone records, transactions and betting accounts to ID how many – if any – were breaches of rules.”
That point is vital. BuzzFeed’s algorithm is a reasonable first filter, generating a list of players and matches to investigate in further detail, but to suggest that it should equate to a red-flag against someone’s name is hugely simplistic. Other indicators are also required. As the tennis analyst and professional trader Dan Weston told the Guardian it was “easy” for anyone with a knowledge of betting markets to spot match-fixing, because there are usually at least two of three key ingredients.
• Unusual pre-match odds movement, usually in the last hour or two before a match, because that’s when large bookmakers such as Pinnacle increase the sums that can be wagered and it takes more to move the market.
• Dubious activity either in-play, or on side markets. Weston rattled off instances when a player was a set and at least a break down yet was still heavily favoured by the betting markets to win. He also cited several cases where a player who started the match as favourite was an underdog to win the first set – a clear red flag.
• A fixed match often has a much higher than usual amount of money matched on betting exchanges such as Betfair or at major global bookies such as Pinnacle. BuzzFeed stands firmly by its reporting, which it says is based on “more than 20 gambling industry officials, international police detectives and sports integrity experts” who told it that tennis was failing to confront a serious problem with match-fixing. But when it comes to its algorithm it is clear that solely assessing pre-match odds was not enough.
As Scott Ferguson, formerly the head of education at Betfair and now a respected betting industry spokesman, put it:“BuzzFeed was a bit irresponsible. They had an important piece of the pie, but not all of it.”
When Ferguson worked for Betfair from 2004 to 2006, its integrity unit spent most of its time monitoring three things: racing, credit cards and tennis. “Betfair were sick to death with nothing being done about corruption in tennis,” he says.
“Things have improved at the top level, but there is more of it going on in the Challengers and Futures level” – which is where those ranked outside the top 70 or 80 mostly play.
That is where everyone says the majority of the match-fixing takes place now. There are far more Challenger matches than on the main tour, which means more opportunities for the fixers. There is far less prize money, which means players may be easier to bribe. And, unlike a decade ago, most bookmakers offer prices on lower ranks of the tennis ladder.
The review into the Tennis Integrity Unit, announced on Wednesday, is “aimed at further safeguarding the integrity of the game,” a joint statement read from the ATP, WTA, ITF and heads of all four grand slams, but others are asking what else should be done.
There have been suggestions, from Andy Murray and others, that tennis shouldreconsider its relationship with betting companies. But as Ferguson, : “Does having a betting partner really affect how players behave? For years Queen’s was sponsored by Stella Artois – were players getting smashed as a result?”
A more sensible option would be to dramatically strengthen the fight against corruption. And that goes beyond beefing up the TIU, which has only five staff to investigate corruption in a global sport, and into ensuring security around minor tournaments, where it is often easy for unscrupulous types to talk and try to influence players.
Others would also like to see a permanent external body to review its Integrity Unit’s interpretation of the evidence. In doping cases, the World Anti-Doping Agency is able to oversee a dispute between an athlete and a federation and if necessary, present it to another panel.
In tennis it has always been in-house. There is no appeal or review. And there is no independent external board. Which is far from ideal.
And despite most experts insisting tennis is much cleaner now than previously – the early noughties were described as “the wild west” by one analyst – it is clear that tennis should do more. As Ings points out: “Other sports such as football and athletics have promised us previously that everything is under control, just like tennis has, but that trust has been misplaced.
“The tennis authorities need to explain, with much greater clarity, how the sport will be protected from corruption.”
And, despite their latest announcement, those words can’t come soon enough.
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