A new study into the prevalence of cheating in men’s tennis was released last week, spanning seven years and 22,012 matches, involving 1022 players. The report claims that “cheating in professional tennis is widespread in the opening rounds of non-grand slam tournaments”.
According to the report, carried out by Patrick Andreoli-Versbach from the Max Planck Research School for Competition and Innovation and which was presented at the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference, players have a greater reason to cheat at lower levels of the tour than when big ranking points and bigger money was at stake. To avoid suspicion, it says, they do so by withdrawing through injury during the match.
Not just that, they will also make more money by betting against themselves because the odds on their opponents will be higher (due to the disparity between their rankings) and also the attention on that event will be far less than on one of the more established events.
In 2010, the report said, the top 20 players got 44 percent of the total prize money on offer on the entire ATP Tour. Citing the investigation of a 2007 match between Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo Arguello of Argentina, when suspicious betting patterns drew attention to the Russian’s withdrawal through injury, the report says there was an injury in 933 of those 22,012 matches.
The analysis is interesting and clearly took an awful lot of time. Unfortunately, it is fundamentally flawed. The report goes on to say: “we provide evidence that cheating occurs in the initial rounds of secondary tournaments, where the incentives to compete are low”.
Quite simply, that is not true. Andreoli-Versbach is making an enormous leap to say that just because there were a number of injuries in matches involving players outside the top 30 against underdogs, then that proves there was cheating in each of those matches. Rather, his analysis shows that if players cheated in those matches, their potential returns are higher than normal.
We know from talking to players that many of them have been approached by people asking them to throw matches, or to fix the outcome of a match. In the wake of the Davydenko case (the Russian was never charged with any wrongdoing, it should be pointed out for clarity), the Tennis Integrity Unit was established, to try to rid the sport of match-fixing.
It is a thankless task – arguably it is one they can never truly win – but they have worked hard, first to educate the players on what they can and cannot do, liaising with bookmakers to ensure they are notified of anything unusual, and working on eradicating the sport of “courtsiders” – those individuals who sit, courtside, sending the scores back to their counterparts abroad before the official scores drop on the official sites.
The report shows that the odds on the underdog are often greater in those lesser tournaments, when the favourite should win easily. Therefore, betting on the underdog would yield bigger results than at other events. But that’s just common sense. Trying to prove someone has thrown a match is far, far more difficult than that.
The report also suggests that fixers have become smarter in recent times. Instead of the Davydenko situation, when Betfair reported a total of £3.4 million “matched” (bet on the outcome, most of it placed “in-running”), the report says fixers are now spreading their bets in small amounts over a number of bookmakers, in different currencies.
Well, that would be smart, of course, if it’s true. Certainly in the UK, it is not as easy as that. In recent years, many of the bookmakers have changed their rules on tennis betting, so that they only pay out on a “winner” when the match is actually completed, and not when one player withdraws because of injury. William Hill, Stan James, Bet365 and Paddy Power all void bets in case of a withdrawal once the match has begun.
Betfair insist on at least a set being played – which still leaves them open to it – and Ladbrokes, perhaps looking for an edge on the rest, will pay out when a player withdraws, whenever it happens.
In-running betting, where gamblers can bet at any stage in a match, repeatedly, is also part of the problem. If a favourite wins the first set, the odds on the underdog usually drift. When Davydenko won the first set against Vassallo Arguello, the odds on the Argentine actually shortened and the weight of money placed on him caught the attention of Betfair.
The report does not take into account a number of things. While saying the suspicious injuries often occur towards the end of the year, they do not take into account the likely physical fatigue suffered from a long schedule. It points out surprising data and while we are not naïve enough to think the sport is free of match-fixing and cheating, it offers no other plausible explanations. Players tend to try harder in the bigger tournaments; it’s human nature.
But it’s the initial claim, on page 1 of the report, “that it provides evidence that cheating occurs” which is fundamentally flawed and which undermines the rest of the work done.
The Tennis Space contacted Andreoli-Versbach and he said that the presentation to The Royal Economic Society was not a final report and had not been meant for wider publication. When pressed, he agreed that there is no actual evidence of cheating, and that his phraseology was perhaps misplaced. He stands by the methodology and the anlaytics and says a final version is due to be ready in the next month or two.