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Dissecting Europe's Massive Tennis Match-Fixing Scandal

Tennis

Tennis apparently doesn’t pay, unless you’re at the level of one of the Williams sisters, or Federer. For the rest of them, it’s a massively expensive sport that doesn’t come with many rewards unless you go down for match-fixing.

Even that may be coming to a close following last week’s operation by the Spanish Civil Guard that broke up a tennis match-fixing ring allegedly involving nearly 30 professional tennis players, including one who played in the last US Open.

The Guard said it had arrested a total of 83 people in a sting that included a raid on 11 houses and the seizure of $192,000 in cash and five cars and the suspension of 40 bank accounts.  

According to Spanish authorities, at least 97 matches from lower-tier Futures and Challenger tournaments were fixed. Those tournaments represent the second and third tiers of professional tennis, comprised of hundreds of barely noticed tournaments where players can improve their rankings. 

In October, Spanish authorities had dismantled an Armenian criminal group that accused of paying bribes to players to fix match points or final outcomes. According to Europol, the criminal group was also using the identities of thousands of citizens to place international bets on the matches.

Police accused Spanish player Marc Fornell-Mestres of acting as the link between players and the criminal group. Fornell-Mestres was provisionally suspended from the sport at the end of last year, shortly after the criminal group was dismantled.

The Civil Guard said the group had been operating since at least February 2017 and could have made millions of euros.

Match-fixing has been a controversial issue in tennis for some time now. Elite players are handsomely paid but those in the lower echelons of the game struggle to make ends meet.

By way of example, the winner of the recent men’s Orlando Open, Marcos Giron took the prize of $7,200, while the winner of the Australian Open will take home nearly $3 million. Related: Cash Is Now A $3-Trillion Safe Haven Bet

Since turning pro in 2005, Andy Murray has won over $60 million in prize money and he is only the 4th all-time leader in tennis earnings.

It’s not the first time tennis has been under scrutiny for match-fixing. And it’s not the first time that scrutiny has been in Spain, either. In 2016, Spanish police detained 34 people for alleged involvement in match-fixing. But just to show how hard up these lower-ranked tennis players can be, authorities said that some received around $1,000 for losing specific points or games, but some did it for as little as $50.

According to an International Tennis Federation study, there were around 14,000 professional players in 2018, but only around 600 earned enough money to cover the annual cost of competing. Only 336 men and 253 women broke even, when factoring in costs for travel and accommodation.

“The imbalance between prize money and the cost of competing places players in an invidious position by tempting them to contrive matches for financial reward,” the study said.

However, even though some 90 percent of the fixed matches are occurring in the lower level tournaments, an investigation by BBC and BuzzFeed News found that 16 players who have ranked in the top 50 have been repeatedly flagged to the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) over suspicions they have thrown matches.

By Josh Owens for conil.me

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