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June 12, 2005
Tennis And Gambling: A Love Match?

Most professional sports learned decades ago to keep professional gamblers at arm's length from the players in order to maintain the credibility of the sport. The most famous scandal of all sports, the Black Sox of 1919, taught the value of at least maintaining a plausible facade of integrity, although to baseball's credit, it put in place one of the most Draconian codes about gambling in sports. Point-shaving scandals have come and gone, but the sports involved know to act quickly and harshly with those involved to rebuild trust with fans.

Now, however, a new sport may come under scrutiny for widespread cheating, and combating it may prove much more difficult:

The squeaky-clean image of tennis is at risk as the sport braces itself for a court case which threatens to expose match-fixing by top players.

Irakli Labadze, a Georgian last year ranked 42nd in the world, will be accused at a court hearing in Austria this week of conspiring with a professional gambler to make money by 'throwing' a match.

Tennis authorities are watching the case nervously amid growing fears that some players and their associates may be profiting by using gambling websites to place bets on matches in which they know the result in advance.

Unlike in team sports, tennis players can control the entire match unilaterally -- and it's not difficult to lose while looking on the level. A missed volley here and there, a bit of extra power on a shot that puts the ball just outside the line, and it just appears that one has had an off day.

It appears that Labadze may have done just that against unknown local player Julian Knowle in Austria, much to the delight of his friend, gambler Martin Fuehrer. The unfortunately-named Fuehrer oddly bet 10,000 Euros against the 42nd-ranked Labadze in favor of Knowle and won 17,000 Euro when his "gamble" paid off. Only, in fact, it didn't pay off; the bookmaker, Cashpoint, got suspicious and checked into the situation. It claims it has evidence which will be revealed this week that Fuehrer and Labadze met before the bet was placed and Labadze threw the match.

If this shocks anyone considering the large purses available to the winners in tennis (it did me), the notion of corruption in tennis doesn't surprise those who play the game, nor those who gamble on it:

Justin Gimelstob, an American player, has warned that corruption may be going undetected and that tennis is an 'easy' sport to fix. 'It's 100 per cent possible and I have my suspicions,' he said.

Professional gambler Christian Plenz said: 'To put 10,000 on a single wager is very unusual. Match-fixing does happen in tennis.'

If proven in the Labadze case, it might devastate the sport. Unfortunately, unlike other team sports where game-fixing and point-shaving required conspiracies that usually unravelled quickly, match-fixing in tennis would consist mainly of free-agent gamblers and players coming together on only certain occasions and probably only involving one player and one gambler. Once the sport gets dirt on its shoes, and especially if Gimelstob is proven correct, it may never be able to demonstrate that it's clean again. Such a revelation won't stop tennis from continuing, but the big sponsors will walk away from the corruption -- and those big purses will start to dry up.

In this case, it may have to fall to the players rather than their association to demand transparency and a wall between the players and the gamblers. Tennis is too autonomous for a Kenesaw Mountain Landis to rescue it, and players "own" themselves anyway. The sport had better prepare some sort of response quickly, however, because if Fuehrer and Labadze are found to have thrown that match, sponsors and watchdog groups will start sending forensic accountants to scour the records they can check to see what else crawls out from under the baseline.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 12, 2005 9:09 AM

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