Tennis allegations: A betting consultant has his say

Corruption will never be truly stamped out, but surely a major dent can be put by stopping the repeat offenders. 

Nikolay Davydenko was under a cloud some nine years ago.   -  Reuters

Scott Ferguson, a wagering industry consultant, was once the Head of Education at Betfair, the world’s largest internet betting exchange. Now, he runs the website Sports is Made for Betting. Sportstar caught up with him in light of the match-fixing controversy which has rocked the tennis world.

Excerpts:

Question: How much of this is new and how much old? Does it surprise you?

Answer: Very little. The sad point is it continues a long thread from nearly a decade ago. There are new matches to add to the sample of players with reasons for genuine suspicion. But the faces are often the same. Corruption will never be truly stamped out, but surely a major dent can be put by stopping the repeat offenders. 

In your experience, is there anything you have seen, [Nikolay] Davydenko excepted, either data or anecdotal, that suggests fixing could have infiltrated the top of tennis, not just the lower, more susceptible rungs?

The top? No. There will be the odd match in R1 of a Slam, but generally these events involve early round matches at lower Tour events, or further below. And therein lies one of the problems. If it’s not blatantly obvious to the person in the street, then there’s a severe danger of it being written off as a gamblers’ problem or a myth. But there are undoubtedly players profiting from manipulating the scoreline.

Tennis has become a huge betting sport. Why so?

It’s worldwide, all year round, with streamed coverage from many events. There’s plenty of data to analyse and there’s no need to consider team selection, the coach’s tactics etc.

What is fixed? Points, games, sets or matches and how?

It’s very hard to spot fix in tennis. While you might be able to place a few bets on individual points or games, it’s bookmakers taking the risk here and they soon work out who has access to the script if they start losing heavily.

The Tennis Integrity Unit, by its very nature, works in confidentiality. Those in it say transparency is impossible because it will compromise their working and it isn’t legally tenable. Is there any way they can be seen to be doing more?

It’s 2016! That’s a lame excuse. They have to be seen to be doing something, even if it’s by making generic statements; “In January, 15 matches were submitted for investigation, of which we found enough evidence to follow up on 10 matches.” Only making public statements when they have sanctioned some player nobody has ever heard of just doesn’t cut it. Perception is everything. Should the sport be responsible for investigating itself? Surely there is an incentive for them to not find corruption, which potentially hurts commercial revenue from sponsorship and broadcast rights. Anti-doping is taken away from the sports because of governance risks, why should match-fixing be any different?

Are the tennis authorities too hush-hush? Back in 2013, Marin Cilic served a “silent ban”. He withdrew from Wimbledon under the pretext of an injury, but it was for something else. Doesn’t this give enough ammunition to the conspiracy theorists?

Yes. How many world sporting bodies need to implode before this is plain and clear? FIFA, IAAF, cycling, cricket.... Deny, deny, deny...nothing to see here, these allegations are all baseless. It just makes you wonder how many other issues they’ve covered up. The ATP has made a complete mess of anti-doping sanctions – (Greg) Rusedski, (Richard) Gasquet, (Marin) Cilic... It doesn’t take much imagination to think there might be other skeletons in the closet. Silence and incompetence only add fuel to the fire.

Is the TIU up to speed in using data and analytics? Is investment in this area the key to get its investigative abilities to the next level?

It’s hard to tell from the ‘cone of silence,’ but with the resources they have made public, it’s hard to believe they are. Again, it’s 2016; it’s the era of big data. They should be using data models to chart the course of match (betting odds), mining the betting data provided to them by betting companies and developing analytics to understand the traits of individual players in different situations. Two or five matches on their own do not prove anything. Build up a sample of 50 matches per player per year and you can start making reasonable assumptions. The player tracking data these days is getting very sophisticated. Why not use it to protect the sport too?

And supposing they do it, the seemingly difficult leap from suspicious betting patterns to legally permissible evidence – can this be bridged?

Prosecuting a player on the international circuit can be very difficult when you have players from different nations at a tournament in another, contacted by criminals based in other countries, with different laws in each relating to accessing phone records and financial history, and to how seriously they treat sporting corruption. But, the TIU is not trying these players in a criminal court. The burden of proof is significantly lower.  Even if they can’t (yet) convict, they can make it known to these players they are being watched closely.

(To be concluded)