Corruption in Tennis, Part 1: Why the Sport Is Especially Vulnerable to Corruption

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.

4 thoughts on “Corruption in Tennis, Part 1: Why the Sport Is Especially Vulnerable to Corruption

  1. Ross, thanks for this interesting post. I’ll admit that I don’t know much about sports betting, so I’m wondering if you have any information you can share on the size of prop-betting markets as opposed to betting markets on the outcomes of matches. Specifically, I’m curious if the amount of money riding on, say, a live-odds bet, is similar to the amount of money riding on the outcome of any given tennis match. Similarly, has there been any reporting on the size of the bribes that corrupt tennis players have received? I’m trying to get a sense of the scale of the problem, which might affect what policy solutions would be preferable and how drastic those solutions might need to be to clean up the game.

  2. Very interesting post Ross. So would you say that pro tennis associations should lobby for governments to outlaw prop betting? It seems like if they could manage that, that would eliminate a lot of the problem right?

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  4. This is a fascinating post Ross! I’m curious how many cases of match fixing have actually been investigated and convicted by the ATP. I also wonder how large the tennis betting market really is. Cricket is probably as far as you could get from tennis in terms of the two factors you describe that make the sport susceptible to corruption- it’s a large team sport, and while there are discrete components (overs), it’s about the cumulative outcome rather than over-specific performances. Yet the size of the betting market is mind boggling ($200M every time the Indian team plays a one day match!), and the sport has been plagued with a number of high profile match fixing scandals, even though match fixing should perhaps be harder to pin down. So to go back to your first point, could the opposite actually be true, that is, one player in a team sport can more easily strategically throw away a game, rather than the sole tennis player on whom all eyes are focused?

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