Fixing the Match Down Under

The first of the major tennis tournaments of 2016 is underway down under. At the 105th edition of the Australian Open, the world’s best tennis players have gathered in the warmth of the Australian summer to bat a ball back and forth over a net. The tournament opens the year in outdoor sports. The only way to play any of the outdoor, warm weather sports during the northern hemisphere’s winter is to go to the southern hemisphere and thus the popularity of the Australian Open, the second most popular grand slam tournament each year. It takes place over a two week period as the field is whittled down to the final pairings and the championship matches.

Every tennis tournament is like every other one, except it is not. Each tournament is a separate theater, the names are the same, but the narratives change each time. This tournament is no exception; it has just begun, but already two of the sport’s biggest names have been sent packing; Rafael Nadal and Venus Williams.

The sport is perfect for betting because the plot lines vary so much. Except for injuries, it is impossible to predict the final outcomes; the traditional tools of the bookmaker such as previous tournaments, rankings and perceived fitness levels are of little help. Tennis is harder to handicap than other sports because it is an individual sport. The outcome is determined by skill, but also by the will of each player. The uncertainty makes it exciting for the bettors, but frustrating for the bookmakers. It also makes it an ideal sport for match-fixing. Every sport is subject to illegal manipulation, but team sports are much harder to control than individual sports. Tennis is the ultimate of individual sports. In tennis, the players are pitted against each other, not the course as in golf, for example.

The uncertainty and the possibility of manipulation are making headlines at the Australian Open. The tournament began play this year under a very dark cloud. As play began, the BBC reported it had seen “secret files” that contain evidence of suspected math fixing, including 16 players ranked in the top 50 in the world. The reports and the evidence have not been released, all we have are suspicions. Those are based on irregular betting patterns; for example, in a small tournament in Europe, a ranked player was not the favorite, his unranked opponent was; more money had been wagered on an unranked and unknown player than one of the leading players in the world. The evidence is circumstantial at best, but enough to create a stir at the Open.

The BBC report grabbed headlines and stirred the pot, but it did not slow down the early betting. The international betting firm, William Hill, said wagering on the 2016 Australian Open was up 80 percent and the live-in-play betting was up 300 percent. The Aussies do not seem to be worried about match-fixing and neither is William Hill; it is one of the courtside sponsors. The world’s no. 2-ranked player, Andy Murray thinks the tournament is inherently conflicted by accepting the sponsorship. That kind of conflict of interest is one that plagues sports worldwide, casinos, internet gambling sites and bookmakers are major sponsors of sports everywhere. Nearly every major international football (soccer) team has a gambling sponsor, but so do American professional sports teams. Many baseball, football and basketball arenas have some courtside gambling advertising.

Why is that? The answer is simple; sports and gambling have become symbiotic partners. Every bookmaker is willing to take bets on sporting events, any sporting event. And by the same token, every sports team benefits from the gambling associated with its play. Making a bet on a game makes the game more exciting for the spectator. Excited and enthusiastic fans make the game more profitable for a team, or as in the case of tennis, the tournament. It would be impossible in today’s sport and gambling environment to unbundle the two. To protect the integrity of the contests, every sport will have to tighten its controls. But no sport will be able to eliminate the betting; not professional tennis and not the Nation Football League.

Meanwhile, down under, the Australian Open will proceed has scheduled. There will be winners and losers, both on the court and in the betting booth. It is highly unlikely that any match will be fixed, unlikely, but not impossible. However, the timing of the BBC report guarantees one thing, some of the losing punters will blame the players, certain that Down Under the match was fixed. I mean, didn’t one of the Williams twins and Nadal lose in the first round to players who probably were not even qualified to be there?  The matches must have fixed, it is the only way it could have happened; possibly I will demand my money back..


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