Pro Tennis Players Could Lose Their Cellphones

Cellphones may be banned from tennis locker rooms to prevent the flow of inside information to gamblers.

I was sitting in the food court at the ATP Los Angeles event this summer when I happened to speak to an older Asian gentleman. He told me that he knows the families of some Taiwanese tennis players and he used to go to the U.S. Open regularly. When one of the players he knew would lose her match at the Open and go home, he’d take a press credential from someone in her entourage and he’d use it to get access to the players lounge for the rest of the tournament.

He’d never get away with that today. In fact, this year the media were even banned from the locker room at the U.S. Open. Now it looks like cellphones could be next.

The ITF, the ATP and the WTA – the three governing bodies of professional tennis – are considering banning cellphones and handheld communication devices from players lounges and locker rooms. No more watching youtube videos on your iPhone while you wait for your tennis match to start. Players will now have to be satisfied with watching Novak Djokovic do his imitation of Maria Sharapova in person.

Why such draconian measures?

Ever since Betfair voided all bets on a dodgy match between Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo-Arguello in early August, new information about betting on tennis matches has been tumbling out of players mouths. Most of the time they described an anonymous phone call offering money to influence the outcome of a match or a stranger walking up to them and offering money. But last week, Belgian player Gilles Elseneer said that someone offered him $141,000 to throw his first round match at Wimbledon in 2005. That someone was not a stranger and it was not an anonymous phone call. It was a person who had access to the locker room.

I don’t know how banning cellphones will keep people out of the locker room but here’s a situation it could help. Let’s say Roger Federer is getting ready to play Guillermo Canas in the second round at Indian Wells. A person in the locker room sees that Federer’s ankle is all messed up and he’s getting treatment for it. That person flips open his cellphone and calls in a bet on Canas who is a huge underdog.

Maybe it was an Italian player who nipped out to the players lounge and used one of the laptops to lay down a bet on his internet betting account. An AP article reported today that “several Italian players had online betting accounts.”

That’s trading in insider information and that’s a big no-no.

In that AP article, by the way, notice that mainstream media finally caught up with the irregular betting pattern on the Poutchek/Koryttseva match a week after we first reported it here.

It isn’t just the players who are talking. British newspaper The Telegraph turned up a dossier compiled by a bookmaker that recorded suspicious betting patterns in 138 tennis matches dating back to 2003. No doubt many of those matches were not irregular but that still averages out to over 27 matches a year.

It’s a bit like the steroid controversy if you think about it. It’s been going on for years but no one has been talking about it. The Balco scandal broke open the steroid scandal in baseball and track and field. Gambling in tennis was broken open by that highly suspicious betting pattern on Betfair – an online betting exchange – during the Davydenko/Vassallo-Arguello match. If you’re using an online betting exchange, you can see the betting pattern right there on your laptop.

Is banning cellphones a draconian move? I’m not sure it’s draconian as much as ineffective. Unless tournaments ban cellphones from the entire tournament site, what’s to stop someone from stepping out of the locker room and making a phone call?

It would be more effective to require transparency for injuries. Any time a player gets treated for an injury, that information should be public knowledge. Players might run offsite to get treatment to avoid tipping off their condition to an opponent but that’s a lot harder than stepping outside the locker room and making a phone call.

It also shows you a problem with banning the media from locker rooms: it’s easier for players to hide injuries.

Speaking of those online betting exchanges, sometimes it’s the betters themselves who alert betting sites to suspicious matches. It doesn’t take an Einstein to detect an irregular betting pattern.

Tennis’ organizing bodies should require timely and public disclosure of injuries and find out who’s laying the bets that drive irregualr betting patterns. They should avoid adding yet another security procedure to the many we already endure.

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