As the 2008 Australian Open winds down in Melbourne, that gambling-mad country's been compelled to face tennis' recently hatched hard-nosed stance towards match wagering.
Everywhere you turn on-site, all and sundry encounter signs reading: "Tennis Australia has a zero tolerance policy on illegal gambling, match fixing and the communication of sensitive information which may affect the outcome of a match and will investigate all reported instances".
And legitimate enforcement steps have been taken. On the tournament site, access to any number of known online gambling sites has been blocked, and they've gone so far as to ban laptop usage by those in the stands. They have yet to take cellphones out of patrons' hands, so there remains at least one hole you can drive the First Army through, but you can't say they're not making an effort.
You knew the Association of Tennis Professionals was getting serious when they poured a lakeful of water on a brushfire, just a month ago.
Italian pros Pitoto Starace and Daniele Bracciali were fined and suspended a month ago - no wristslaps, either. Starace was sent to the sidelines for six weeks and fined $30,000 US. Bracciali was handed a three-month ban and a notice that he was expected to cough up $20,000 US, forthwith.
While crying "Injustice!" and shaking their heads regarding the surface disconnect between the punishments and the crimes, Italian Tennis Federation did acknowledge that Starace made a total of five bets (risking $130 in all) back in 2005, and a review of Bracciali's action revealed some fifty flutters of $7 apiece from 2004-05.
But after Alessio Di Mauro got the book thrown at him (nine months' worth) in November for taking fiscal risks on matches, what's most surprising . . . is Starace and Bracciali's expression of surprise.
It's in the air, and has been, since the Nikolay Davydenko/Martin Vassallo Arguello August match in Sopot, Poland match drew exchange-betting volume out of all proportion to its individual importance. And when the money proved remarkably prescient (i. e. Arguello became an even bigger favorite to win the match AFTER Davydenko won the first set!), many sets of eyeballs commenced rolling, simultaneously.
And on the heels of the Starace, Bracciali and Di Mauro slapdowns, with a fresh story in mind about a handful of women players being directly propositioned to lose (or to reveal pivotal health/injury information), and with the Aussie Open off and running, WTA Tour chairman Larry Scott stated the obvious when he told BBC Sport that "We have identified that there's an awful lot of gambling on tennis." Scott was further quoted to the effect that "I think we must have the right to impose a lifetime ban on any athlete that was associated with corruption."
We're taking Scott at his word, and have no problems with his approach. Mr. Scott's a real-world resident, in that he's not running around, glassy-eyed, demanding a worldwide ban on sports gambling, and drooling clichés about "protecting the children". He's tacitly acknowledged there's an international wagering marketplace, and doesn't want pro tennis players betting on tennis. It looks terrible, and encourages an on-site element he finds undesirable.
Much like the pro-golf tour, the economics of the second and third strata of talent comprising the world tennis pie makes for interesting speculation. Everybody can use extra money, and if you're lodged firmly in the 230-240 range in the world rankings despite your best efforts, and you're burdened with expensive tastes in addition to unavoidable (and not-inconsiderable) Tour expenses, can understand that the temptation's there. If you're feeling only half-right leading into an early-round match of a secondary competition, the current state of the exchange marketplace could make it viable for said less-than-angelic player of less-than-optimum morals to lay down for an offshore payday.
On the other hand, there are legitimate secondary income streams available to most ranked players that help them keep their heads comfortably above water without resorting to chicanery. Endorsement opportunities aren't scarce, and the international flavor of the sport means that the majority of ranked players are ranked amongst the best of their home countries. This almost inevitably translates into decent annual appearance money, unless the player is a total social churl.
And to be realistic about it, for a younger player boasting anything resembling a future, it would be crassly self-destructive to indulge in such behavior, given current levels of scrutiny within tennis' social circles, on the court, and within the exchanges.
But there'll always be "information". As Lindsay Davenport told The New York Times just over a week ago, " . . . our locker room is open; if I'm in there and something just happened to me in practice, there are 20 girls who are going to see it. I don't think they'll be able to control the information; it still gets around like wildfire."
Whatever. The best and the brightest of the well-informed international tennis gamblers are going to prosper despite peripheral restrictions on the timing and transmission of wagers. You're talking a myriad of one-on-one matches involving participants who can talk. If someone's mentally unfocused and/or is feeling below par, it's likely someone in a position to take advantage of it is going to know it. It's the perfectly-healthy, focused folks who might be looking to take a dive in order to "go for the price on Wilson" that are the concern. But feel confident that's not a frequent occurrence. In any event, to put a full stop to it, you'd have to accomplish the impossible -- by halting all gambling in its tracks. And that's not in the cards.
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