Following the bouncing ball of innuendo, there could be some hardened cynics out there who dare to connect Serena Williams’ shocking loss in the Australian Open semifinals with the match-fixing reports that shadowed this year’s Grand Slam tournament Down Under. Anyone who has been around Williams, a ferociously ambitious champion, would dismiss such a low-down link out of hand. It’s just that the gambling mind-set includes the notion that there is no such thing in sports as an upset. Only a fix.
And even dismissing that more rascally point of view, it doesn’t take real evidence of skullduggery to create a pervasive fear among fans that somebody might have a thumb on the scales at times.
While the joint report by the BBC and Buzzfeed, published at the start of the Australian Open, mostly rehashed suspicious matches from 2007, there was this dog whistle days later: The New York Times detailed an abnormal volume of bets on an obscure mixed-doubles match and subsequently observed some dubiously executed shots in that match.
It’s all murky stuff, open to various interpretations. Who can tell if a player is trying his or her best? A few messy forehands, a volley flubbed into the net, a couple of double faults. Maybe there are honest instances of temporary loss of concentration, what the old Australian great Evonne Goolagong described as “gone on a walkabout.” Maybe there is the matter of an injured player, aware he or she cannot win, nevertheless choosing a below-par performance over skipping the match and forfeiting the loser’s prize money.
While the bookies and bettors are thinking: Fix. Thinking: It only takes one to tangle reality.
No less a tennis insider than Patrick McEnroe—who has been a player, coach, player-development official and commentator—told the Times a couple of years ago that his sport is a “very easy game to manipulate” and that, if he were so inclined, he could “throw a match and you’d never know.”
Veteran tennis author Peter Bodo, in an espn.com post, argued that the current controversy was “less about match-fixing than the difficulty of actually proving matches have been fixed, and identifying the culprits.”
Bodo called that a “wake-up call to tennis officials who might not have understood how deeply they’ve become entwined with gambling entities, and where those associations might lead.”
Early in the tournament, eventual Aussie runner-up Andy Murray suggested that it was “hypocritical” for the Open to have an official gambling partnership with United Kingdom bookmaker William Hill, while the players are forbidden to accept endorsements deals with such agencies.
On the Australian web site conversation.com, Charles Livingstone of Melbourne-based Monash University worried that the “rampant promotion of gambling on a seemingly never-ending exponential trajectory” not only meant that “more people are likely to gamble,” but also that younger generations have come to “view all sporting contests through the lens of the odds and the ‘value’ available from different bookies.” Possibly sending them on the path to a destructive habit.
“More broadly,” Livingstone wrote, “the inestimable value of the untrammeled enjoyment of sport is lost. If you love a specific sport and see it degraded by scandal after scandal, some part of the enjoyment is gone forever.”
Or, you could think of it like this: A scoundrel willing to risk his reputation as a tennis pro—and possibly his career—by throwing a match, and a blackguard endeavoring to buy that player’s agreement to sandbag (either of which could end up the victim of a double-cross) deserve each other.
Common sense requires an acknowledgement of sports gambling, much of it legal, as well as recognition that great athletic feats can be divine but that not all the actors are angels. And tennis authorities—just as officials in all sport—have a responsibility to keep an eye out for untoward influences. It was the great British detective writer Agatha Christie who said, “Where large sums of money are concerned, it is advisable to trust nobody.”
As a spectator, though, none of this turns me toward misanthropy, away from sport’s ideal of a battleground of honor, where the best man or woman wins. Upsets can happen.