Although wagers on tennis make up only a relatively small fraction of the global sports gambling market (estimated at around 12% of that market in 2015, compared to 65% for soccer), tennis seems to account for a disproportionate share of gambling-related match fixing and other forms of corruption. For example, ESSA (a non-profit dedicated to integrity in sports betting) reported that of the 496 cases of “suspicious betting” that it flagged across all sports in 2015, 2016, and 2017, 336 (68%) stemmed from bets on tennis matches. Of course, a suspicious betting alert does not necessarily indicate that match fixing or other corrupt activity actually occurred (see, for example, here and here), but still, that a sport comprising just 12% of the global sports betting market could generate over two-thirds of suspicious sports betting activity is striking, and consistent with expert assessments on the prevalence of corruption in tennis. Indeed, in 2005, Richard Ings, then the Executive Vice President for Rules and Competition for the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), wrote that “if a sport could have been invented with the possibility of corruption in mind, that sport would be tennis.”
Two factors in particular make tennis particularly susceptible to gambling-related corruption:
- First, tennis matches include fewer participants than most other sports. (About 75% of all professional tennis matches are singles matches, while the other 25% are doubles matches.) This means that whether a point, game, set, or match is won or lost can be directly attributed to the performance of the two (or four) players competing against each other. Indeed, unlike in team sports, a tennis player has near-complete control over whether his or her attempt to “fix” a match succeeds. Thus, fixing a tennis match only requires the collaboration of one player (or, in a doubles match, perhaps two). In contrast, to fix a match in a team sport with the same certainty would require the fixer to bribe or coerce most or all players on a given team—which involves greater economic cost, higher risk of detection, and lower probability of success.
- Second, tennis’s scoring system is untimed and comprised of discrete components and sub-components (points, games, sets, and matches). This makes tennis particularly vulnerable to corruption with regard to “proposition betting” (colloquially called “prop betting”) and “live-odds betting.” Prop betting, which occurs when one wagers on something other than the ultimate outcome of the match, is especially popular in tennis because its scoring structure offers bettors discrete outcomes on which wagers can be placed (i.e., points, games, and sets). And because tennis’s rules allow for breaks between points, games, and sets, bettors can keep making new bets in the interim pauses. Prop betting has particularly high corruption risks, as players may be more willing to be bribed or coerced by gamblers into “spot-fixing”—purposely losing a point, game, or set, without intentionally losing the entire match. Indeed, from the player’s perspective, because tennis’s scoring system isn’t cumulative (it doesn’t matter, to the outcome of the match, whether a player wins a set 6-0 or 6-4), deliberately losing a point or a game doesn’t matter as much, so long as the ultimate outcome of the match—which determines things like prize money and ranking points—is unaffected. Furthermore, in part because unforced errors and double faults occur frequently in tennis, corrupt actors may believe that limited spot-fixing (e.g., throwing “just” a few games in a match) is less likely to be detected than fixing an entire match. Besides the greater potential for “spot fixing,” tennis is also especially conducive to so-called “live-odds betting,” in which wagers with continually updating odds are available while a match is in play. Live-odds betting introduces additional corruption risks, as a corrupt player could maximize the “in-play” betting odds available for his opponent by, say, winning the first set and grabbing a lead in the second set—only to begin intentionally losing at a designated time, after his corrupt partners have placed significant wagers on the inflated odds. Indeed, to make an unlikely comeback seem more plausible, a player with a commanding lead could feign an injury to justify forfeiting the match. (The best known—yet admittedly unproven—example of an alleged manipulation of the “live-odds betting” scenario is the notorious 2007 match between Martin Vassallo Arguello and Nikolay Davydenko.)
What can be done to address the corruption risks associated with these aspects of tennis? It’s unrealistic that tennis’s governing bodies would change key components of the game, such as the scoring system, so most of the anticorruption work within the sport has rightly focused on the policies and governance of the professional circuit. Indeed, such was the focus of the recently released report commissioned by tennis’s governing bodies, entitled the “Independent Review of Integrity in Tennis.” In my next post, I’ll explain that, while this report is a step in the right direction, it falls short in certain important respects.