Tennis cheats?

Unlike athletics, tennis’ woes have been recent, beginning truly with the investigation into possible irregular gambling patterns in a match at the Sopot Open between Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo Arguello. Over to Rohit Brijnath.

Tennis these days is worried about cheats. Join the queue, fellows. The moment a sport writes down its rules, people begin to invent ways to bend them. Cheats can be as fascinating as champions in the sense that both will go to all manner of lengths for victory. Bowlers will slyly pick the ball and pitchers hide sandpaper in their belt. Marathon runners have hitch-hiked to the finish line on trucks and Tour de France cyclists have done the same on trains.

Humans haven’t suddenly felt the urge to cheat, it is not some disease to be blamed on modernity but a plague even of the ancient Olympics. In 388 BC, the boxer Eupolus of Thessaly is reported to have taken three rivals aside and convinced them with a little bribery to take a dive. In 67 AD, Emperor Nero, a fair-minded fellow, allowed himself to be declared the winner of a chariot race in which he fell and never finished. Then they inhaled ether, now they inject animal blood. Winning has always been everything for many.

Why do people cheat? Once just to win and be famous, and now, presumably, to be rich also. In tennis, profit could come from losing matches that are winnable. Still it is sad yet fitting that Marion Jones is reportedly broke because she made significant millions from her five medals at the Sydney 2000 Olympics from performances that were artificially enhanced.

Jones did sport one favour. Unlike an array of athletes who find refuge in constant denials, she admitted finally, between tears, ‘Yes, I was a cheat.’ Now she must do sport another service and explain why she cheated.

What is the moment when a naturally gifted athlete decides her genes and discipline are insufficient? When does a runner grow impatient with her rate of improvement? What justifications are manufactured in the mind when the first needle squirts nandrolone into the body? Is the guilt hidden away so deep that the athlete herself begins to believe she is not doing anything wrong? How does she reconcile praise and the shaking of a president’s hand and the adoration of the public with rubbing on illegal creams? All this, we still do not understand.

The athlete must eventually wear the responsibility because in most cases the athlete makes the informed choice about cheating (though in some countries, young athletes are given substances by officials they do not have the right to question). But it is the support system of these athletes which is often crucial to their development and their choices: some coaches push drugs, some officials look the other way, some friends excuse everything. Part of the role of some entourages appears to be to indulge the athlete, to stoke his paranoias, to keep him from the truth of his excesses.

Unlike athletics, tennis’ woes have been recent, beginning truly with the investigation into possible irregular gambling patterns in a match at the Sopot Open between Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo Arguello. Reportedly $7 million in bets were received for the match, allegedly 10 times the usual amount, and most of it on Arguello to win, even after Davydenko won the first set 6-2. Arguello won the second set 6-3 and was leading 2-1 in the third when the Russian retired. Davydenko said he aggravated a left foot injury. This is not an unusual scenario in tennis matches, but the volume of money ensured that bets were voided.

No evidence of fixing exists, but in the past weeks there have been reports of players revealing they had been contacted to throw matches. All refused. All are smaller names, not stars, which figures. The matches of top players are watched by millions, and presumably they do not need the money. Lesser players, struggling to pay hotel bills and air fares, can tank and no one would know.

Tanking, or throwing a match, or creating errors to ensure a loss, is not hard to do but not easy to prove. As Andy Murray said: “It’s difficult to prove if someone has tanked a match or not tried. They can try their best until the last couple of games in each set and then make some mistakes, hit a couple of double faults and that is it.”

The breadth of this problem in tennis is unknown, and caution is walking side by side with possible exaggeration. When Murray said “It’s pretty disappointing for all the players, but everyone knows it goes on”, he earned a rebuke from Rafael Nadal, who replied: “I think he has gone overboard, I don’t think anything like that happens. I doubt very much that he (Murray) knows more than anyone else. I think that everyone gives it 100 per cent and that there are no fixed games.”

Although Nadal’s comment has a tinge of naivety, it ensured a backtrack from Murray, who issued a statement that read in part: “When I said ‘everyone knows that it’s going on’ I meant that everyone has probably heard that three or four players have spoken out about being offered money to lose matches — which they refused.”

Tennis’ problem is hardly cataclysmic but it cannot sit still. All sport is vulnerable to the dishonourable, greedy athlete. Golf, often not a member of the real world but country clubs, reluctantly decided recently to pursue drug testing, loath to believe its players might cheat. But some will. It’s what humans do. In 2000, Spain was disqualified after winning gold in the intellectual disability basketball event at the Paralympics. Because 10 of its 12 players were not disabled.