08 Sep 2015 16:36 IST

Is too much money tainting tennis?

After all, it's so much easier to fix a game than a team sport

The North American hard court tennis season has been in full swing and I have been taking in my full share of all the action and drama, both on and off the court. As an avid fan devoted to the game, I am beginning to wonder, however, if it continues to be a 100 per cent honest sport we had all grown up believing it was. I have no evidence to support my suspicions but my long career as a management consultant has trained me to become uncomfortable when certain patterns occur.

Here, world number 1 Novak Djokovic’s dominance of the game is what I’m referring to as a case in point. Twice in the last two weeks, Djokovic was down a set and in serious trouble in the second set against relatively weak opponents - Ernests Gulbis (in Montreal) and Alexandr Dolgopolov (in Cincinnati). Both Gulbis and Dolgopolov had entered tournaments as qualifiers which meant they had to win a separate contest before these tournaments even started, simply to get in. In both matches, the challengers meekly surrendered their commanding leads and dissipated into oblivion, crowning Djokovic as the winner.

Win the match

In Miami in 2014, Djokovic and Dolgopolov faced off for an identical result - Djokovic down the first set, facing elimination in the second down 1-4, and then coming back to win the second set and the last set, incredibly, 6-0.

In the Cincinnati match against David Goffin, a more established player, Djokovic was down 0-3 in the third set having lost 9 games out of the previous 11. But he magically went on to win the next six games in a row to win the match.

In the match between Andy Murray and Grigor Dimitrov in Cincinnati, Murray was about to be sent packing out of the tournament in the second set having lost the first set decisively to an assertive Dimitrov hitting unbelievable shots all over the court. But surprisingly, Murray recovered to win the second set in a tie-break, and like Djokovic, went on to win the match in the end.

Close deal?

Robbie Koenig, the ubiquitous commentator whose South-African accented voice is a mainstay on Indian television screens, explained it all away very simply: “Champions always come through in the end”.

But do they? How is it possible for challengers who are literally a point away from winning a big match and making history, to fail so miserably to close the deal?

The tennis fan in me argues that this is what makes the game truly great. Individual sporting competitions, after all, remain the last vestige in sports where success and failure are solely dependent upon the efforts of one person. Just look at the failures of Rafael Nadal in the last few years, my tennis nerves tell me. The list of relatively unknown players who have beaten Nadal - Lukas Rosol, Steve Darcis, Martin Klizan, Dustin Brown – is rather long. One of the greatest tennis players to have ever lived, Nadal has proved that he can lose if he doesn’t play as well as his opponent.

Healthy scepticism

But the sceptic in me wants to consider other possibilities when challengers go down in lame defeat. Is it possible that these tennis challengers were financially motivated to deliberately lose or affect the outcome in some manner? It is after all so much easier to fix a tennis game than a team sport such as soccer, football or cricket.

Consider this report from Tennis magazine in February. Two players, Frenchman Elie Rousset and Italy's Walter Trusendi, were given six-month suspensions and fined $5,000 for violating anti-corruption rules. At a challenger match in Morrocco, the higher-ranked Trusendi, who was scheduled to play a first-round match, approached Rousset to say that he was injured and would withdraw from the event, allowing Rousset to play. In return, Rousset would have to give Trusendi the first-round prize money of € 326 he would have received for competing in the match.

In early August, Al Jazeera Sports reported that the Italian Tennis Federation (FIT) had banned Daniele Bracciali and Potito Starace for life for match-fixing.

Around the world

When it comes to ethics, sporting worldwide has had a bad record in recent years. Naive fans of cycling great Lance Armstrong stood by him for nearly 15 years, through his unbelievable record of 7 consecutive Tour de France titles. In 2012, a US Anti-Doping Agency investigation concluded that Armstrong had used performance-enhancing drugs over the course of his career. This resulted in him being stripped of all of his achievements after 1998, including the Tour titles.

In baseball, three decidedly avowed hitting greats - Barry Bonds, Mark Mcguire and Alex Rodriguez - were all charged with using steroids and human growth hormones. Children were trading baseball cards of these players with gusto only to have the wind taken from their sails.

Long before the IPL scandals, cricketers who had a loyal fan following included such household names as Mohammed Azharuddin, Manoj Prabhakar, Ajay Jadeja, Hansie Cronje and Saleem Malik. Each one of these players disgraced himself by believing that he was above the rules of the game and basic morals. And worse, that he would never be caught.

Even before the recent FIFA stories, two of the world’s most soccer-crazy nations were involved in two separate scandals involving referees (in Brazil, 2005) and teams (in Italy, 2006).

But back to tennis and its number 1 player, Novak Djokovic. Referring to the sport's susceptibility to match fixing and other corrupting tactics, he told USA Today Sports in December last year, “I think it's illegal and I think it is ruining the reputation of our sport…..we don't have any room for that. But the reality is different.”

He should know. In 2006, he was approached via an intermediary and offered $100,000 to fix a match – an offer he says he refused.

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