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When the U.S. Open starts Monday in Flushing Meadows, the prospect of fame and prize money will attract some of the world's top tennis players, with $2.5 million awaiting winners of the finals and $75,000 for those eliminated in round one.
But athletes can face another temptation in the high-stakes world of Grand Slam tennis: In the past year, both Wimbledon and the French Open were marked by suspicions of match-fixing flagged by monitors hired to insure the integrity of the sport.
Match-fixing is the deliberate manipulation of sports events, involving betting on previously agreed wins, defeats or even just individual games in a match. A boom in online sports betting is raising the potential earnings and stakes.
Two matches last month at Wimbledon 2021 - the most important tennis tournament in the world - remain under suspicion of match-fixing. Several betting providers raised the alarm about conspicuous abnormal betting patterns, as reported by the German newspaper Die Welt.
The International Tennis Integrity Agency (ITIA), which handles match-fixing investigations on behalf of the four major tournament organizers, including the U.S. Open, confirmed the alerts and launched an ongoing investigation. Monitoring companies that oversee the global betting market confirmed the abnormal betting patterns, too.
In France, police arrested Russian player Yana Sizikova in June for a possible fixed match at the 2020 French Open, also a Grand Slam event. She was released shortly after and the investigation is ongoing.
In July, Sizikova sued for libel and slander in response to the allegations, against an "unknown person." "Yana Sizikova intends to have her status as a victim in this case fully recognized and to ensure that those who started rumors damaging her reputation are prosecuted and convicted," her attorney told the Associated Press.
Sizikova posted on Instagram: "This is protest not only for me specifically, but also for all athletes who have been unfairly convicted by 'bloggers' on Internet and who should not be victims of the online betting industry." Sources for news coverage, she continued, "like to embellish and add non-existent details as much as possible."
The International Tennis Federation, the governing body of the sport, is under pressure to maintain the game's integrity following numerous cases of suspected or confirmed match-fixing going back years.
A spokesman for the ITIA, Adrian Bassett, said that the risk of match-fixing at the U.S. Open "is low - but still present."
The group will continue working with the betting industry "to ensure any suspicious activity is monitored."
The U.S. Open did not respond to requests for comment.
FBI Expressed Interest
Monitoring firms are not alone in eyeing the U.S. Open for possible match-fixing. Investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation have also expressed interest in the tournament's integrity, a member of European law enforcement involved in tennis corruption probes told THE CITY.
"American investigators asked me in 2019 if they should worry about manipulation at the U.S. Open," said Eric Bisschop, Belgium's vice federal prosecutor.
The FBI did not comment in response to a request from THE CITY.
At the time, Bisschop's team was investigating the biggest match-fixing scandal in world tennis in recent years. An organized crime group had been bribing players since 2014 to fix matches at lower-level tournaments worldwide.
In total, prosecutors identified 137 players suspected of fixing or attempted fixing. Raids took place in the U.S. and several European countries. At least twenty people involved were arrested, with charges that included corruption, money laundering, forgery and membership of a criminal organization. Related investigations are ongoing.
French players admitted in interrogations that they had participated in the fraud out of financial pressure in a sport where costs for coaches, hotels, flights, doctors and equipment quickly add up to $100,000 a year or more.
The ITIA says it has beefed up its security measures since.
"Our education team is already present at the U.S. Open undertaking face to face sessions with players and tournament staff, setting out what to look out for and how to report suspicious activity to the ITIA", Bassett said.
Match-fixing expert Stefano Berlincioni doesn't think much of the assurances of those in charge of world tennis.
"There's no reason for fixers to stop their activities," said the Italian in an interview with THE CITY. "It's one match-fixing scandal after another and the players involved are just allowed to get on with it." For people like him who follow tennis closely, he said, it's frustrating.
"There are so many professionals involved that it would simply be a disaster for ITIA to ban all players" involved, he said.
Officially, the ITIA has received 46 match alerts this year and has issued sanctions, including suspensions, to 11 players in 2021 as of July 14. This is roughly in line with the figures for the first half of 2019, when there were 54 alerts.
U.S. players are among those who have been sanctioned by the ITIA. Among them is Nikita Kryvonos, who in 2017 was banned for 10 years and fined $20,000 after being found to have breached anti-corruption rules, including match-fixing.
On a list of suspicious games from 2020 obtained by THE CITY, nine other matches from lower-tier tournaments in the U.S. are flagged as suspicious based on betting patterns.
Berlincioni said that in the case of the suspicious match at the French Open 2020, he could immediately see something amiss.
Even before French police announced the launch of an investigation, Berlincioni shared a video clip of the match on Twitter. The footage of the suspicious fifth game in set two shows Sizikova, from Russia, causing two double faults in short order. She appears to slip easily when she loses another point. Several bookmakers raised the alarm about conspicuous betting patterns.
Sizikova did not respond to a recent inquiry from THE CITY. On Instagram, she wrote a post in July complaining that athletes like her were allegedly being "unfairly convicted." And further: "Lately, everyone thinks that anything can be done to the Russians."
Marco Trungelliti, 29, tennis pro from Santiago del Estero in Argentina, is among the small number of players who've blown the whistle on match-fixing. He says he was contacted by match-fixers himself via Facebook in 2015. They initially offered him a "sponsorship," he recounted, which after a few meetings turned out to be a paraphrase for a match-fixing offer.
When he reported the recruitment attempt to ITIA investigators, the Argentine also testified against other professionals who, to his knowledge, were manipulating the sport. Several players ultimately received suspensions and fines.
Trungelliti reports that he received hostile looks on the tennis tour after his statements. He reports a kind of omertà, a never-spoken pact: "Actually, everyone has internalized that you have to keep quiet about these things in public," he told THE CITY.
Sports Betting Outpaces Laws
The explosion in online sports betting has raised the stakes for tennis tournaments. In many countries, anyone can create a profile online with just a few clicks and be rewarded with a whopping welcome bonus. Bets can be placed on almost any sport, from soccer, horse racing, and cricket to eSports, around the globe, around the clock, and all in the craziest combinations.
It is lucrative for criminals to cheat at the major Grand Slam tennis tournaments, as significantly higher betting stakes are possible there. Berlinconi explains that on a first round match at the U.S. Open, several tens of thousands of dollars can easily be placed on one bet across different accounts. In this way, turnovers of several hundred thousand dollars are possible with one bet on a specific game during a set.
Experts put the annual global turnover in sports betting at around $1.7 trillion - a tempting target for organized criminals to exploit.
The European police agency Europol called organized crime groups "heavily involved" in sports corruption in tennis and soccer.
Sergio D'Orsi of Europol told German newspaper Welt Am Sonntage: "Criminal syndicates and mafia groups worldwide use match-fixing to generate and launder money. Match fixing is a very profitable 'low risk, high profit' business for criminals."
Around 65% of the global betting market allegedly takes place in Asia, the vast majority of it operating illegally, according to D'Orsi. Cryptocurrencies add to the challenge of investigating money flows.
Online sports betting is booming in the U.S., following a 2018 Supreme Court decision that struck down a federal law that had banned commercial sports betting in most states. New York took a relatively cautious path under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, allowing sports betting only in four casinos, all outside New York City.
The state Gaming Commission is currently considering bids for two proposed licenses for online sports betting. Among the applicants are leading global online betting providers such as Hillside (bet365) and Betfair, as well as a consortium of casino operators. As reported by Bloomberg, Jay-Z has also joined the New York bidding alongside sports-merchandise company Fanatics.
Yet as online sports betting races ahead, U.S. laws have not kept up with the related risk of match-fixing, warns Brooklyn Law School professor Jodi Balsam - New York included. That could leave local prosecutors flat-footed.
"For example, the New York penal code targets only bribery in sports, that is, bribing a player or other game participant to fix a game. But the laws do not address, for example, manipulation by individual game participants acting on their own," Balsam said in an interview with THE CITY.
"To better crack down on match fixing, we would need to make cheating in sporting events a criminal offense in the U.S.," Balsam said. "That already exists in some European countries after a number of prosecutions failed because the laws weren't specific enough."
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Posted on Oct 11, 2021