VAVEL USA Special: Tennis Match-Fixing Discussion
Photo: Tyt Network

Last month, the writers of VAVEL USA Tennis got together and discussed the recent match-fixing claims filed against professional tennis in a joint report published by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and BuzzFeed News. Though match-fixing has always been a problem in  sports, the severity of match-fixing in tennis was not entirely discovered until the publication of this report.

Max Gao (MG): Thank you for joining me for this very special tennis match-fixing discussion. I appreciate you all for taking the time to discuss this very serious on-going issue in professional tennis.

First off, what was your reaction to the match-fixing news that came out in a joint report from the BBC and BuzzFeed? Was this always something that you had in the back of your mind or did this come as a surprise?

Glenys Furness (GF): My first reaction was name names. Until then, I'm going to ignore it. I believe it has been rife on the lower echelons of the tour but saying big names involved sounded like trying to muckrake.

Thomas Cluck (TC): My first reaction was that it was the same story as I have heard before, and that it was only at the lower levels. I was surprised but again I thought it was a very small issue and one that had not infiltrated the upper echelon of the game.

Oliver Dickson Jefford (ODJ): My first reaction was that I needed names to be able to assess any facts or not. The fact there were no names made me dubious about how much was true.

Pete Borkowski (PB): It was an immediate surprise, but it's not the first time there have been reports so I kind of wanted to wait and see who was named and how big a scandal are we talking about.

Pan Mich (PM): Match fixing is part of every sport. To be honest, I was not so much surprised as every sport has its bad side, unfortunately. Most of all, I was disappointed and sad as many big names where there and many of them favourite players of mine that I have been supporting for years.

TC: I also found it very hard to believe without names being released. The lack of transparency made it much harder for me to grasp.

MG: Those are all very interesting points because I was always aware of this issue in the lower echelons of professional tennis but when this report came out, it occurred to me that this issue might have spread further than the lower levels of this sport.

Over the last couple of weeks, there have been reports about players who are suspected for match fixing. Does this play a role in how you assess this situation?

GF: No, still waiting for the names to be named, until then its just all speculation in my view - I know that Novak said he was approached and it was turned down before it even got as far as him.

TC: It definitely does, as I believed match fixing was only present at the lower levels. Once I found out there were top players involved, it became a much larger scale scandal to me.

PM: The names made things even worse. Great athletes of the past few years and many players I liked. This scary thought had been always in the back of my mind to be absolute honest. But without having any proof, things were at least relieving. Now, one of my worst nightmares [had come true].

PB: Yes and no. I did not honestly believe that the match fixing was an issue above the lower levels, but when top players were accused, it kind of freaked me out. However, when I heard some of the names and I thought about, I actually found it somewhat plausible.

ODJ: The reports about the top players really surprised me as I fail to see why these players would have a reason to match fix. I'm going to be honest and say I don't believe in most the names from that report back in 2011 [when tennis match-fixing was also reported].

TC: I also agree that most of the players on the 2011 list are not true, as there has been no evidence to support it.

There have also been reports about players who are suspected to have fixed matches, which include players who have been among the world’s elite in the last five to ten years. Did these reports surprise you?

MG: For me, I was extremely surprised because I thought match-fixing was an issue that was present at the lower levels of professional tennis, but I was also confused as to how it could get as far as onto the WTA and the ATP.

TC: I was very surprised to hear that top players of the past 5-10 years had been involved, as I believed match fixing only existed at the lower level.

GF: I haven't actually seen any names yet. Am I behind?

PB: I've seen a list, but I can't seem to find it. [But I know Novak] Djokovic was accused when he was young. Not recently, but in 2006-2007.

GF: Novak has admitted that someone tried to approach his team but the offer was rejected before it got to him.

PM: There were names like Vika [Azarenka] and Aga [Radwanska] and all my Italian favourites.

ODJ: I also believed if it was at the higher levels, it would have came out much earlier, and been reported pretty quickly.

MG: Good point, Oliver.

That leads to my next question: Why do you think players choose to fix matches when they could make much more money and gain more ranking points by winning these matches?

ODJ: I think that there is a possibility that players could doubt their ability and, if they are struggling for money, would see match fixing as an easy pay day.

PB: Depending on the level of the match, there actually could be more money in it for them if they lose.

PM: This is a big question, maybe they tried this entering small tournaments so they can win the money from them painless and without getting tired. I don't think this would happen at a Grand Slam or a top event.

PB: If you're not that good, tennis does not pay very well at lower levels

MG: That is a fair point, Pete.

TC: I believe players fix matches because they might be struggling at the moment, not believing they can win them, causing players to think they might as well get some benefit from losing, therefore causing them to fix a match. I also believe they might just want an easy path to money, not wanting to work for it.

PB: None of this is proven, right? It's all just accusations at this point

TC: Correct.

ODJ: Most the names have never been proved and probably will never be, but Potito Starace has since been banned for life for match-fixing.

PB: The big names like Aga and Vika I don't understand why they would do it. To Max's point, why sacrifice the money and the ranking points when you're playing at such a high level?

PM: Remember it was in 2011 Aga and Vika weren't huge names back then. It was their [breakthrough] year.

PB: Fair point.

GF: I hate to say it, but I want proof, not just accusations. Wasn't 2011 also Novak's big year?

TC: They definitely weren't small names, they were top 20 at least. And yes, [Glenys].

PM: Thomas, they were top 20 but not top 10 and [were] well known popular players.

ODJ: But Aga and Vika were still making a lot of money and becoming high profile. I agree with Glenys - how can we judge when there is not an ounce of evidence being displayed?

Let’s say you’re a professional tennis player who has been playing at the ITF level for a few years now and you have decent results on a regular basis. But one day, you are approached by a gambler who will pay you a couple thousand dollars to lose matches. Would you do it?

PB: I don't think I would. That's just the way I've been brought up and how I approach competition. It is tough to say what I would be thinking were I actually in that situation and was desperate for money. But to me, losing is never worth it, even if I get paid for it. I play sports because I like it and it would be like selling my soul.

ODJ: It depends on your confidence - if you don't feel that you can win that match, you could consider deliberately losing to get some much-needed cash. Personally I don't think I could do it, though I can kind of see why some people would.

Would you say that your economic status plays a role in your decision?

PB: Well, definitely. If I didn't need the money, there is no way I would even consider it. I would have to be in a poor financial situation for me to even think about throwing a match for money.

ODJ: Economic status would play a massive factor, I think.

PM: It's something that, first of all, is not ethical to me. Match fixing goes against the rules and principles of the sport. However, there can be bad circumstances. As you know, ITF players are struggling financially, so in case of a bad situation in their life they will need the money, which are never secured if you dont have results.

TC: No, I would not do it because if I have spent countless hours practicing and dedicated my life to the sport, I would love tennis so much, that I would not be willing to destroy the integrity of the sport, just so I could have some money. Also, the punishment is very heavy, so if for no other reason, I would not do it because of the punishment. And yes, the players economic status definitely plays a role in the decision, along with how their federation is funding them.

GF: [I would] probably [do it], but my morals would counteract the need for the money.

MG: I agree with all of you. Even if I was struggling financially, being banned from playing the game you love would have had more consequences on me emotionally than being financially unstable, and I would definitely feel guilty if I made the decision to get involved with match-fixing.

That leads me to my next question: Let’s say you are losing more money than you are winning on a regular basis and you are struggling with your confidence. Would you still take the money and the risks of being caught?

PB: I don't want to believe that I would, but in that situation where my career is going nowhere, I might.

GF: I'm not a player so I can't answer that really, my moral stance though is that I wouldn't take any "bungs" to lose. Although if i was a player doing badly and needed the money, who knows?

TC: No, I would not take the money, firstly because of love for the sport and morals and secondly because you never know when your career can turn around, so why take the risk of ending it by being caught for an illegal action. For example, Zhang Shuai considered retiring because she was not winning, but she kept at it and eventually had her big break. I would not end my career prematurely, at the punishment of being caught match fixing, just so I have money to live off of.

ODJ: Those are good points, Thomas. I think that depends on what help you can get. If that happened to say a British player, and they told the LTA (Lawn Tennis Association), they could help support the player [financially].

PM: It depends on my personal life in this situation. If I had many problems, I would unfortunately have to resort to it, you know life is not always easy to anyone. In general, though, if I had no particular problem, I would fight and return to the good results without the boost of match fixing. It is a complicated issue that depends to many things.

What sort of punishment do you think players who are involved with match-fixing should face? Suspensions? Bans? Time in prison? Fines?

GF: Lifetime bans - it's along the lines of drug cheats. Well that's my view anyway.

MG: Why do you think that way, Glenys?

GF: Because cheating is cheating.

ODJ: I think a suspension/ban is a suitable punishment. Prison seems a bit harsh.

PB: I think I agree with Glenys. Only if it's proven, but by fixing matches, you're showing utter disrespect to the sport and you don't deserve to be a part of it. Prison is too harsh, but if you're not going to respect the game, you don't deserve to be apart of it.

GF: Yes, it has to be proven before the ban takes place.

TC: I believe that if you are caught match fixing, under no circumstances should you be able to keep playing. If you made the choice to fix a match, you should be indefinitely banned from the sport, as you hurt the integrity of the sport. I do not think time in prison is necessary, as what you did was illegal in tennis, but not at a national or worldwide perspective. By indefinitely banned, I mean a lifetime ban.

ODJ: I'd say a lifetime ban.

PM: Prison is a really harsh punishment. Suspension from the sport is the best punishment but it would depend on the circumstances.

MG: I totally agree that prison is a very harsh punishment, so I think lifetime bans are the most fair in most circumstances. If you were to give those players a lifetime ban, would you strip them of their accomplishments like sports organizations do with those who use performance enhancing drugs or would you just ban them from competition?

GF: It would depend, I guess. If someone had won a Grand Slam and was found to have thrown earlier matches then hmm, that's a bit difficult to take their name off the trophy. But its still cheating.

TC: I would not strip them of their accomplishments, because unlike drugs, match fixing did not enhance those accomplishments. Match fixing only was one match, not causing them to accomplish anything.

PM: Agree with Glenys! Because they fixed a match in a tournament once you can't take away from someone his talent recognition by any means.

PB: I feel like it depends on the level of the transgression. However, match fixing tends to involve losing on purpose so I'm not sure how much there would be to take away.

ODJ: Just ban them from competition. The chances are that if they had achieved anything major, they wouldn't have been fixing then.

PB: Obviously Vika didn't throw any matches in her two Australian Open runs, so it's not fair to take them away.

TC: Agreed, Pete.

Do you think these allegations of match fixing damage the integrity of the sport in general?

PB: Of course it does. I had a professor the other day who literally said of tennis players "they're all cheaters anyway".

GF: Of course it does - and to release the report when they did stinks!

TC: Yes, because it makes the sport look like a non competitive and meaningless sport. From the outside, it causes the perception of tennis to be a non pure competition, detracting from the competitiveness of the sport.

ODJ: Agree with Glenys - the timing of the report was very cunning, seems to me that they were trying to overshadow the tennis.

TC: It makes people who are not familiar with tennis, believe it is a meaningless sport with s great deal of corruption and cheating.

PM: Every sport has the dark side that damages its integrity. Drugs, match fixing, fanatism. It is terrible for the dignity and the clearness and reputation of our sport, but I don't think any accussation like this will be enough to delude someone from all the happiness tennis can bring. In the end, we are all fans.

What do you think gambling sites should do in this situation? They could do everything in their power to keep match-fixing at a minimum or eliminate it altogether but it’s just not in their financial interest to do that.

GF: Sorry but gambling sites should not be allowed to "advertise" or sponsor tennis or any other sport they should be just on the street shops that people who want to waste their money go into.

ODJ: Betting companies often do the right thing by cancelling bets that are odd. That's the only thing they can do really. I agree with Glenys that they shouldn't be allowed to sponsor tournaments.

MG: I agree, Oliver. That is really all they can do while continuing to make money, which is their ultimate goal.

GF: Sponsoring the sport really does not give a good image and the fact that every change of ends (on a commercial station), you get sodding betting ads!

TC: Gambling sites cannot be expected to shut down due to match fixing tennis, as they make all their money purely off of gambling. It is their responsibility though to make sure no fixing happens, and if their is legitimate suspicions of match fixing they should immediately stop betting on that individual match.

PM: Gambling sites only win through match fixing, there is no way they will stop themselves. The tennis organisations should put them the respectable limits so they wont intervene in our sport.

PB: I honestly don't know enough about how gambling works, but I think if it's taken out of the equation, it certainly would cut down on the amount of match fixing.

GF: And TV stations shouldn't allow the tournaments to be "sponsored" like the Australian Open on Eurosport - which is "sponsored" by Betathome.

TC: Tournaments should not be allowed to be sponsored by betting companies, as betting sites may have inside access towards enhancing their product, causing more chance of fixing.

Do you think the number of players who secretly match fix will drop as a result of this recent report or do you think they will continue to lose for the sake of money?

TC: I believe the number of players who fix will go down significantly, as there is now more attention then ever, on match fixing.

PB: I would hope the number would decrease. There will surely be more scrutiny by the ATP, WTA and ITF so it should in theory be harder to get away with now.

ODJ: I think now there's such a public report about it match-fixing could go down, though the lack of evidence is a problem as it could show players that it's possible to get away with it

GF: I think it will get harder to fix as there will be more investigations in to and there will be a worry of getting caught.

PM: When a virus infects a body its difficult to stop him and cure yourself. The report was the first successful antibiotic dose to match-fixing but no one ever became well again with only one antibiotic dose.

TC: Nice metaphor, Pan.

PM: Thanks!

MG: That is an interesting way to think about it, Pan!

And finally, what do you think will happen from here on out? For example: Do you think they will be able to gather sufficient evidence to punish a player? Do you think there will be new rules put in place for gambling sites?

GF: No, the gambling sites pay too much to sponsor the tournaments. Nothing will be put in place; they will argue it's not their fault.

PB: I expect there will be some formal rule put in place for future punishment for players; make it clear what will happen from here on in if you get caught. I would be very surprised if any of the accused players end up getting punished. Certainly not the big names. They'll probably do everything in their power to discourage players from match-fixing.

PM: The best they can do is [the] ITF, WTA and ATP to gather and talk for the situation, subsequently posting some official rules. However, I dont see anyone to be rally motivated to do so.

GF: They need to make the game more viable at the lower levels.

TC: Unfortunately, I do not believe tours will be able to prevent match fixing any more strictly then before. Fixing goes on behind closed doors, and it will still be just as hard to catch instances of fixing. I do believe there will be new rules put in place to prevent against fixing on sites, such as gambling sites not being allowed to be sponsors, but unfortunately I do not believe it will be any easier to catch match fixing.

ODJ: I don't think they'll be able to gather evidence as if there was evidence there I think it would have been discovered. In terms of betting companies, I don't think too much will change, though I personally think that banning bets on ITF level (where most match fixing takes place in my opinion) would be a good thing to start with.

PB: I agree with Glenys. They need to make it easier for players in the lower levels to make a living, so that they do not feel the need to throw matches in the first place.

TC: Agree with Oliver, the only betting at ITF level is fixing, as there is generally not much interest in ITFs outside of match fixing.

GF: You can't ban betting though.

PB: Unfortunately not.

MG: I personally think there will be some small things that will change, such as banning bets at lower level tournaments but even that could result in a number of problems such as the increased risk of match-fixing at higher levels of the sport, but I think the WTA, ATP and ITF will work together to prevent that, which will consequently decrease the number of match-fixing cases we have been faced with in recent weeks.

Does anyone have any final thoughts that they want to add before we conclude our discussion?

TC: Everyone in tennis needs to remember that even in a time of great trouble and concern, the class and spirit of tennis will never go away. Some people might try to hurt our sport, but at the end of the day, tennis goes on. There will still be the French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open. Tennis goes on and we cannot let fixing ruin the sport we love.

ODJ: Nice words, Thomas.

TC: Bye, guys!

MG: Thanks for being apart of this discussion, Thomas! Nice closing words.

TC: Loved doing it. Thanks!

Anyone have anything else to say before I close this discussion?

ODJ: All I can really think of is that no one should really say anything unless they have proof to back it up.

PB: Nothing good ever comes of accusations with no evidence to back them up.

GF: Thats true, name names or shut up!

MG: Thanks for being part of this discussion, everyone! It’s been a pleasure.