TENNIS suffered one of its darkest days today as stars came out in force to defend their records amid claims of widespread match-fixing.
Tennis can be counted alongside athletics, football, cycling, cricket, snooker, horse racing and rugby union as sports to share a slice of scandal in recent years.
An investigation by the BBC and Buzzfeed revealed that 16 players have been flagged repeatedly to the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) over the last decade amid fears they have thrown matches. The suspects, who have not been publicly named, are said to include Grand Slam champions and the alleged rigging took place at major tournaments including Wimbledon.
The match-fixing was allegedly orchestrated by gambling syndicates in Russia and Italy - with prominent players offered 50,000 dollars, or £35,200, per fix in hotel room deals. Further allegations surround an inquiry into suspicious betting in 2007, where the tennis authorities allegedly failed to act on a dossier of suspicious matches presented to them.
Association of Tennis Professionals president Chris Kermode strongly denied that the TIU, set up in 2008 to tackle corruption within the sport, was deliberately seeking to hide any suspected improprieties.
“I can assure you that tennis is not treating this lightly,” he said, while Nigel Willerton, who leads the TIU, insisted that the sport took a “zero-tolerance approach to all aspects of betting-related corruption”.
Mr Kermode, who believes the threat of sports match-fixing is at an “incredibly small level”, told the BBC: “It is simply not true that we are sitting on evidence. What happens is that information and intelligence are given to the Tennis Integrity Unit and they then have to turn that into evidence.
“There is a big difference here between information and intelligence as to evidence. Every single bit of information that the Tennis Integrity Unit receives is investigated properly.”
The allegations surfaced as the tennis world’s attention was turned to the opening of the Australian Open. Some of the sports biggest names have spoken out, with Roger Federer saying he would “love” for the names of those suspected to have involved in match-fixing to be made public.
Serena Williams said she has also never seen any indication of malpractice on the women’s tour. Williams said: “When I’m playing, I can only answer for me, I play very hard, and every player I play seems to play hard.”
Andy Murray offered his tacit approval to the report by retweeting it without comment within minutes of its emergence on social media late on Sunday night, while world number one Novak Djokovic spoke about when he was approached to throw a match for £110,000 in 2006. He said he felt “terrible” when he was offered the money to lose a first round match in St Petersburg.
Djokovic, who was not approached directly, said he was unaware of any match-fixing at the top level of the game.
Djokovic added: “It made me feel terrible because I don’t want to be in any way linked to this - somebody may call it an opportunity. For me, it’s an act of bad sportsmanship, a crime in sport honestly.”
Politically, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman dubbed the allegations “deeply concerning”, while Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has called on the International Tennis Federation to launch an immediate investigation.