Who’s Protecting Tennis Bettors?

When there are suspicious betting patterns on tennis matches, who looks out for the bettors interests?

In May, the ATP announced the completion of its “Environmental Review of Integrity in Professional Tennis.” In other words, is there match fixing going on in professional tennis or isn’t there?

The answer is: yes and no.

First of all, the co-authors, Ben Gunn and Jeff Rees, former police officers who specialize in anti-corruption programs in sports, have found “no evidence of any ‘Mafia’ involvement” in gambling. However, they don’t doubt that “criminal elements” might be involved in corrupting players and officials and those criminal elements might include “organized criminal gangs.”

The report also says that a “number of [Betfair.com] account holders are successfully laying higher ranked players to lose/backing lesser ranked players to win” and it appears that those bettors used inside information to make those bets. If you remember, this is what put this whole “integrity” movement in motion: there were suspicious betting patterns on a match between Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo-Arguello in Sopot last August. Some Betfair users laid a whole lot of money on Vassallo-Arguello, who was ranked much lower than Davydenko, and made him the favorite before the match had begun. And Vassallo-Arguello remained the favorite even after Davydenko won the first set. Davydenko retired in the third set and Betfair made the unprecedented move of voiding all bets.

The report then talks about tanking tennis matches (not trying hard enough), unauthorized use of credentials to get access to the players’ locker room, and abusive behavior towards players by coaches and “other related persons.”

Despite those problems, the co-authors conclude that “professional tennis is not institutionally or systematically corrupt.”

I don’t have any problem with these conclusions though I’m not exactly sure that there’s much difference between “organized criminal gangs” and “Mafia.” I suppose it’s a matter of scale. A small time organization doesn’t qualify for the term Mafia. Or maybe tennis is just sensitive to the term Mafia ever since the Russian Mafia was attached to the Davydenko case because the bettors laying down the big money came from Russia.

But I am concerned about something at the moment. There have been a suspicious betting patterns since the Davydenko/Vassallo-Arguello match and yet Betfair did not void the bets. Professional tennis is watching out for itself by churning out an environmental integrity report and creating an integrity unit, but who’s protecting the bettors?

On April 14, Oscar Hernandez played Juan-Pablo Brzezicki in an ATP match in Houston. Brzezicki won the first set and was up 2-0 in the second set and yet his odds of winning the match on Betfair had dropped since the beginning of the match while Hernandez’ odds of winning the match had increased. Hernandez finally did win the match in three sets. Betfair users contacted Betfair to alert them to the suspicious betting pattern on this match but Betfair settled all bets very quickly after the match ended.

On May 21st, Teimuraz Gabashvili played Blaz Kavcic in Poertschach. Even though Gabashvili was ranked number 125 at the time and Kavcic was ranked number 357, Gabashvili’s odds of winning the match dropped after he won the first set and they continued to drop after he won the first game of the second set at love. Gabashvili ended up losing the match to Kavcic in three sets.

If you go to the Betfair Forum on the day of this match, you’ll see 15 pages of complaints about the suspicious nature of the betting pattern. On page 10, Betfair officials posted this message:

We are aware of customer concerns in relation to the above market and are currently investigating. On completion of the match we will follow our normal procedure for these circumstances: the market will be settled and we will suspend the accounts and freeze funds of any accounts which we believe warrant further investigation. Additionally, we will liaise with the ATP In accordance with our Memorandum of Understanding with them.

Betfair may decide to suspend or freeze an account, but once the market is settled, it’s too late for bettors who lost money on that match. Their money is gone.

The Davydenko/Vassallo-Arguello match brought a huge amount of unwanted publicity to tennis because Betfair had never voided all bets on a match before. People who previously had little interest in tennis were all over the incident and not because they cared about tennis. Despite repeated messages from Betfair users calling for all bets on the Hernandez-Kavcic match to be voided, Betfair did not void bets and has not voided any match since Davydenko/Vassallo-Arguello.

Betfair has its own team of integrity experts as does the ATP and WTA. But Betfair seems to be handing the problem over to tennis by using the “normal procedure” of settling the market. It saves the world of tennis further embarrassment by not voiding the bets, but it doesn’t protect Betfair users who aren’t sure they’re betting on fair match.