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Tennis betting scandal not coming out of blue

August 08, 2007|Lisa Dillman and Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writers

MONTREAL -- Players on the men's tennis tour have been the targets of anonymous phone calls in which they were asked to try to influence the outcome of matches, according to doubles star Bob Bryan, a member of the ATP Player Council.

"I don't know of any players that have ever gambled on tennis," he said Tuesday at the Rogers Cup, a Masters Series tournament. "But there have been some anonymous calls to players' rooms with some monetary offerings.

"I know that. And I know every player I've talked to has turned it down."

Bryan's disclosure comes amid an ATP probe into suspicious betting patterns involving a Nikolay Davydenko second-round match last week in Poland against little-known Martin Vassallo Arguello of Argentina.

Today, the fourth-seeded Davydenko faces Jarkko Nieminen of Finland here in what will be the Russian's first match since the probe was launched.

In an e-mail obtained by The Times on Tuesday, ATP Executive Chairman Etienne de Villiers sent a warning to the tour's players, indicating the seriousness of the case.

". . . Let's be clear on this. The Board and I are committed to doing everything possible to ensure we have a clean sport," he wrote.

"The rules allow us to impose anything up to a life ban as a sanction and we will have a zero tolerance policy towards anyone found to have broken those rules. We have all seen how an issue can undermine the public's faith in other sports. We will not allow this to happen in tennis."

The investigation was triggered when the British-based online company Betfair took the unprecedented step of voiding all bets on that Davydenko match last Thursday because of irregular betting patterns. The wagers reached a stunning $7 million, mostly in favor of Arguello and much of it coming even after Davydenko had won the first set convincingly. In the end, Davydenko retired because of a foot injury.

Bryan, who said he personally has never been approached by anyone asking him to influence a match, did not name the players who had been but thought those to be "isolated incidents" that happened in the early rounds of smaller tournaments.

His comments come two days after tennis star Novak Djokovic said men's tennis had a problem with gambling.

"Usually, it's more in the other sports like football, basketball," Djokovic said. "Now there is more and more cases in tennis, which is, of course, a bad thing for the sport and all the tennis players. Those kinds of things are putting away all the sponsors and all the important people from our sport."

Gambling wasn't always a worry on the tour. In fact, it was front and center at the sport's most prestigious tournament, Wimbledon, and not fueled by the internet or anonymous phone calls.

"There used to be gambling at Wimbledon," said John McEnroe, who played an exhibition Monday night at the Home Depot Center in Carson. "The first year I was there, there was gambling on site, where you could bet on matches.

"A lot of players know a lot about tennis, and guys would be throwing bets down because they knew, like, it was going to be a mismatch if a grass-court guy was playing a clay-court guy. Not only that, but if you were on site and saw a guy limping, you could go place a bet down."

That, of course, was another era. And the Davydenko case is not the first that has caused concern for professional tennis in recent years.

In 2003, betting was suspended on a match in Lyon, France, between Russian star Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Fernando Vicente after a large bet was placed on the Spaniard. Vicente, in fact, ended a 12-match losing streak with an unlikely 6-2, 6-3 win. One week later, Betfair said it had signed an agreement with the ATP, giving it access to betting records as needed and alerting it to any irregular betting.

Last year during Wimbledon, Betfair did just that on one match, notifying the International Tennis Federation, which oversees Wimbledon, to unusually heavy bets in favor of Britain's Richard Bloomfield, who was ranked No. 259 in the world and who managed to defeat No. 89 Carlos Berlocq of Argentina.

And in 1997, ESPN reported a possible connection between the Russian mafia, which was then the focus of a Senate investigation, and extortion of athletes -- including, in one instance, a tennis player who was unnamed. The ATP told ESPN at the time that no player had come forward.

Betfair is at the center of the controversy because there are fewer controls, allowing wagers to be placed at any point during a match. Las Vegas betting, in contrast, is tightly controlled.

Moreover, Las Vegas casinos typically restrict tennis gambling to the four majors and high-profile matches in other events such as a Roger Federer-Andy Roddick final, said Las Vegas Hilton race and sports book official Sean Southam. The action is minimal, he said, estimating that while the most attractive tennis final might generate $10,000 in bets, an NFL game would produce "hundreds of thousands."

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