For Rafael Nadal and the other stars of tennis, there’s a familiar ring to the questions being raised as the first ball is about to be struck at the Australian Open.
Recent match-fixing sanctions and a new case are bringing fresh scrutiny to the integrity of the sport a year after corruption allegations cast a pall over the first Grand Slam of the year.
”(It’s) obviously negative, always in the first month of the season starts to happen,” Nadal said at the season-opening Brisbane International. ”You get tired about this kind of stuff, but the most important thing is fight against these kinds of things.”
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The headlines started appearing early in the new year.
On Jan. 5, police in Australia charged an 18-year-old player with a match-fixing offense at a lower-tier tournament last October in Traralgon, near Melbourne.
Days later, another Australian player, Nick Lindahl, now retired but once ranked in the top 200, was handed a seven-year ban and $35,000 fine from the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) for offering to throw a match at a minor tournament in the city of Toowoomba in 2013.
Lindahl had already been fined after a criminal trial. Two other Australian players received lesser punishments in connection with the incident.
While Traralgon and Toowoomba are far removed from the glittering lights of Melbourne Park, the timing of the developments was troubling nonetheless.
Last season began similarly beneath a cloud of suspicion after a report by BBC and Buzzfeed alleged that tennis authorities had suppressed evidence of match-fixing and failed to investigate possible cases of corruption. The reports went over old ground, but the timing and the headlines overshadowed the tournament.
”I haven’t heard anything (about match-fixing) since last year’s Australian Open,” German player Mischa Zverev told The Associated Press last week in Brisbane. ”I think it was funny timing. … Like the day before the Oscars, they’re going to bring something up to make somebody not win it, or win it.”
Since then, tennis leaders have gone into overdrive to restore confidence in the sport. An independent panel was created to review the TIU, the internal body tasked with combating corruption, and authorities promised to implement all of its recommendations when it is completed this spring.
The TIU also took separate steps to strengthen its monitoring and investigation efforts, develop new anti-corruption education programs for players, and improve the transparency of its operations.
In an email statement to The AP, the agency said nine players and officials were sanctioned last year for match-fixing – the most for a single year since the unit was established in 2008. Several were banned for life, including a young South African player and four officials from Turkey and Uzbekistan.
The unit also expanded its outreach efforts with betting operators and regulators, leading to increased reporting of suspicious wagers.
In 2016, the TIU received 292 betting alerts – an 18 percent increase over the previous year. The vast majority of those came from the Challenger and Futures circuits on the men’s tour, considered the most at-risk for match-fixing given the lower likelihood of detection and the smaller earnings of the players. However, the TIU said three alerts were generated at Grand Slam events, as well.
The agency was quick to note, though, that an alert isn’t necessarily proof of match-fixing. Of the more than 114,000 matches played last year on the professional tours, only 0.2 percent triggered a suspicious betting alert.
”Tennis was one of the first major sports to recognize the potential threat of betting-related corruption and do something about it,” the TIU said. ”It will be for the independent review panel to take a view on the conduct and effectiveness of the unit and to put forward recommendations to improve the current structure and approach.”
Whatever the investigators recommend, the fact remains the TIU faces an uphill battle.
Technology has shifted the gambling landscape in such a way, it’s increasingly difficult for monitors to keep up. In tennis, wagers aren’t just placed on who wins or loses; bets can be placed during matches in real time on everything from total points won in a game to whether a set goes to a tiebreak.
”We’re talking individual player activities here,” said Hans Westerbeek, dean of the College of Sport and Exercise Science at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. ”It’s much easier to get into a situation where you approach individual players to do things that can be, if done well, quite well hidden from it being suspicious.”
He likens it to the ongoing battle against performance-enhancing drugs. ”You’re always struggling to keep up with the innovations that a better-resourced front of gambling operators, legal or illegal, will have available to advance their technology.”
Ryan Rodenberg, an associate professor of forensic sports law analytics at Florida State University, says this is one reason a more sophisticated approach is critically needed. He recommends an internal monitoring system that analyzes each match for suspicious activity in real time, rather than relying solely on betting alerts.
”A robust betting data-monitoring operation would have both in-house capabilities and a number of collaborative information sharing agreements with third parties such as sportsbooks, private monitoring firms or academics,” he said. ”Anything less is sub-optimal.”
With a limited budget of just $3.23 million for 2017, however, there is only so much the TIU can do.
As such, preventative measures such as education have become a priority. More than 25,000 players and officials have completed the TIU’s online anti-corruption training program, and a new version will be launched that players will be required to complete every two years.
”Educating players who are up-and-coming and those who support those players is a very good, positive and necessary thing to do,” Westerbeek says. ”Because the root of the problem is … people not really (understanding) they’re engaging in criminal activity.”
AP Sports Writer John Pye contributed to this report.