For the first time, Mark Davies, a former managing director of Betfair, tells the inside story of the controversy surrounding the company’s decision to void all wagers placed on Nikolay Davydenko’s defeat at a tournament in Poland in 2007. Davies, who was the one arguing in Betfair’s internal meetings that the bets should be made void, goes on to suggest here that tennis should not be scared of the gambling industry.
One of my favourite scenes in British comedy comes from an episode of Porridge: it’s the one where both boxers in a prison tournament have been paid to rig their bout. They dance around each other before simultaneously each throwing a punch that misses, and both promptly collapse on the floor as if felled by a hammer blow.
The tennis equivalent would not be as easy to conjure up, but if the doomsayers are to be believed, just how it might manifest itself is something that we will soon be finding out. Like boxing, a two-person contest (at least in singles, obviously), tennis is deemed to be rife for fixing, in the terribly murky modern world that is the one of internet betting.
Say “match-fixing” to someone who follows tennis, and you’ll soon be in a conversation about the 2007 Poland Open in Sopot. Then, famously, the world’s largest betting exchange, Betfair, voided all bets on a match between Nikolai Davydenko, then the world’s number four, and Martin Vassallo Arguello, ranked 87, citing a phrase which in recent years has become so overused as to be almost meaningless in 99 cases out of 100: irregular betting patterns. All hell broke loose in the media, and while Davydenko argued his innocence, the fact that his phone records were mysteriously unavailable to investigators until the day after the deadline for their fair use passed led many to smell a rat. Not an unusually-priced tennis bet is now placed without the ghost of Davydenko hanging over it.
In fact, the circumstances behind that voiding were exceptional. I know because I was at every meeting in which the potential voiding was discussed, and indeed I was the person arguing with our commercial director that they should be voided. He, quite rightly, feared a huge backlash on tennis betting generally – and his fears came to pass when the volumes on tennis took months to recover. Equally, he pointed out the pain it would cause the tennis authorities, and he was right there too: many times in the coming months, I felt for Etienne de Villiers and Kris Dent, respectively chairman and head of communications at the ATP at the time, as they were besieged by the media as to what they were going to do about the crisis that threatened their sport.
What happened that day was not about the movement in prices – dramatic and bizarre though they were – even though it was that that received most of the focus (and indeed which first raised the flag). Davydenko’s odds drifted significantly, even though he had won the opening set and looked to be cruising to victory over a much lower-ranked player; and in line with predictions on many a tennis forum from those who were watching the betting activity, he duly pulled out and conceded the match.
The important thing, though, was not what could be seen on the site (the movement in prices) but what couldn’t: the information we had behind the scenes. Without getting into detail which might approach tricky legal areas, suffice to say that while we debated at length whether it was the company’s position to make a judgments on the basis of what we had, in the end, we did. For right or wrong, we opened a can of worms.
Maybe the commercial boys just made sure I didn’t see the data, but in the three further years that I spent involved in betting, I never saw the same information again. Every anomalous price movement since, though, has led to cries of foul play. Add to that the fact that people are seen betting alongside tennis matches at tournaments on portable devices (two punters were thrown out of Queen’s for just that in 2009), and the alleged dangers of people using inside information to bet when the odds don’t fairly reflect the real chances, and the perception is that the sport is under threat.
In reality, there’s a world of difference between match-fixing (where the collusion of at least one player is needed, as in Porridge) and punters looking for an edge. In common with many sports, tennis’s focus needs to be on what it can affect (the players and the venue) and not on things which do not impact any part of a match.
Having clear rules about playing every point to the best of your ability, and clear penalties for profiting in any way from failing to do so, is one thing; worrying about someone who might make a few quid because they spoke to someone else who saw a hot favourite on the physio’s bench and is prepared to wager that however much he tries his heart out on court, his physical frailties will overcome him before the end of a fifth set, is quite another.
People in the sport will tell you this is a fine line, but it isn’t. The ideal must be to play to win rather than to disrupt outcomes for some other reward; and the job of the sporting administrators is to ensure that that happens. When people debate whether the tennis authorities do enough about “betting issues” they should focus on what measures are taken to achieve that specific task, and let all the rest of it drop.