Tennis Match Fixing in South America

The recent decision of the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) to suspend Chilean tennis player Juan Carlos Sáez for eight years and fine him $12.500 for breaching the Tennis Anti-Corruption Program (TACP) has garnered significant media attention and presented an opportunity to address a problem worldwide: match fixing in tennis.

Juan Carlos Sáez (aged 28 with a career high ranking in September 2015 of 230) has been found guilty of two charges: “failing to cooperate with TIU into potential breaches of the TACP” and “not reporting a corrupt approach”. The reason? Failing to comply with a request to provide his mobile phone number for forensic analysis when interviewed and not reporting that he had been receiving corrupt approaches during ITF tournaments to authorities. He is not the first South American player to be punished by this kind of action (or omission).

So what’s the law?

“In the event any Player is approached by any person who offers or provides any type of money, benefit or Consideration to a Player to (i) influence the outcome or any other aspect of any Event, or (ii) provide Inside Information, it shall be the Player’s obligation to report such incident to the TIU as soon as possible. (Section D.2.a.i of the TACP programme)” 

Although there’s the possibility of an appeal to CAS, this case allows us to explore the way that tennis operates and the tough reality faced by many South American players in their bid to become part of the tennis elite. 

How does the TIU work?

The TIU is an independent body financed by the seven main world powers of tennis: The ITF, ATP, WTA, Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open. It is responsible for:

  • Enforcing the sport’s zero-tolerance policy on betting-related corruption from taking place;
  • Investigation and prosecuting offenders;
  • Delivering anti-corruption education for players and stake holders to recognise and report corrupt activity. 

The investigation process contains the following stages:

  1. TIU Intelligence gathering.
  2. Asses all information received.
  3. Open investigation when evidence indicates corrupt activity.
  4. Interview suspects and witnesses and analyse data and financial records. 
  5. Submit evidence to professional Tennis Integrity Officers (PTIOs).
  6. Hearing held by independent anti-corruption hearing officer. 
  7. Decision and penalties announced by hearing officer.

Sanctions range from suspensions, fines or even a lifetime ban.

Juan Carlos Sáez’s defence relied on refusing the TIU´s claim that he did not submit his phone to be analysed, arguing he left it with them in Buinberger, Belgium during a Future Tournament. The details of the investigation are confidential, so who knows if he was telling the truth. Despite the potential for an appeal to CAS it seems unlikely that he will have his sentence reduced. Recently he spoke to the media and said that he is no longer playing professional tennis, as he recently got married and is currently working in the USA.

Across the Andes

In 2015 Argentinian´s Marco Trungellitti received an approach through social media to some kind of “sponsorship”. He decided to meet the proponents in a cafe in Buenos Aires and was surprised when he realised that it was a plan to invite him to join an illegal fixing-gambling scheme. He was offered exorbitant amounts of money to lose matches in tournaments:

  • 2,000-3,000 USD in Futures.
  • 5,000-10,000 USD in Challengers.
  • 50,000-100,000 USD in ATP matches. 

He discovered the proposed modus operandi of this organization and their deposit method:

Before each fixed match he would receive an anonymous call from an unknown number. No Whatsapp, Facebook or any other media contact was needed, just the phone number of someone close to the player. After the match they would deliver the “prize money” to the designated person. 

Unsure what to do, Trungelliti, asked a friend for help. He decided to alert to the TIU by email alerting them to the situation. The TIU reacted immediately asking for more information, phone numbers, screenshots, evidence, etc. 

One day Trungelliti received a message from one of the proponents’ personal phone number. This was the key clue for the TIU´s detectives who crossed the information with their records and found that other tennis players where involved with this organisation. The result? Nicolas Kicker, Federico Coria and Patricio Heras were punished for fixing. Trungelliti? Dubbed a snitch his life became a living hell as he became a witness in the trial against his fellow countrymen. He no longer lives in Argentina…

This case shows how players should react, but it has come at quite a personal cost. To this day there are still confrontations between parts of the tennis establishment who support Trungelliti as a whistle-blower and other who do not. These two cases (Juan Carlos Sáez and Marco Trungelliti) with such different endings evidence a reality that needs to be (for want of a better term) fixed.

Challengers, Futures and others

Corruption in tennis could be seen as a particular phenomenon. Tennis players usually start with small competitions and incrementally improve before playing in big events. However, very few players actually ever make it big. Most battle at the lower end of the rankings and struggle to survive economically in a sport where only 700 players actually make money and the rest pay to play. Considering this and the lack of support that south American players receive from public and private sectors, we have the perfect ecosystem that breeds corruption.

Some of you might be thinking “Yes you’re right, but this is a problem worldwide, not limited to South America” and you might be right; The TIU have sanctioned players around the globe. The thing is that there are specific factors that might seduce South American players to ‘fall’ more than others.

We are talking mainly about two problems:

  1. The lack of support and resources.
  2. The prestige of the competitions players compete in.

The first problem is well known. South American players need to survive in the tennis jungle (a middle zone below the elite tennis world) with no help. They are alone trying to stay in each competition as long as they can. They don’t have sponsors, state aid or private contributions. Family are often required to help them.

The other factor is the lack of prestige of the tournaments that they play in. Challengers and Futures are mostly played in North America, Europe and Asia. Very few take place in South America. Players have to spend money to get to these tournaments on flights and hotels. Losing a first round match could mean that the player has actually lost money going to the tournament!

This dismal atmosphere is the perfect storm for corruption. If players fix their matches in smaller competitions then they might be able to afford several months travelling and playing in the never-ending international tournament cycle. 

The corrupt dynamic

Corruption exists across society and sports, but unlike in football for example, the relation between proponent and player is direct, fast and short. No other players are involved, just you, your moral conscience and your sportsmanship facing this apple of temptation.

Lots of players have said that they have received propositions with quite a similar modus operandi: Little contact before the match and prize money immediately after. Contact can be made by social media or messages but some meetings are done in person to limit evidence. The money? Give in cash to someone related to the player. 

Here we find the justification for the rigorous dispositions of the TACP. Evidence in the form of messages, Whatsapp chats, SMS or others might be the key clue to unmask corruption. So that’s why it’s so important to submit devices to analysed.

High standards

So what are our conclusions from the Juan Carlos Sáez and Marco Trungellitti cases? Well clearly it’s not enough to avoid engaging in corruption, as a player you need to be an active part of the solution to absolve yourself of responsibility. On one hand this might seem to put the onus on players, but on the other hand they are best placed to detect corrupt approaches. Perhaps its right that players should play a part in the fight against corruption. This is the lesson Marco Trungelliti taught us: Players must take active measures and avoid passive compliance. Other players need to take a leaf out of his book and realise that corruption damages the competition, the spectacle and most importantly the trust in tennis. As for the authorities, they should fight harshly against corruption not only on terms of investigations and sanctions, but also protecting whistle-blowers.

It is a tough situation that all stakeholders in the tennis ecosystem have to deal with. When tennis organisations realise that players deserve protection, then we will witness the best expression of tennis at all levels, something all of us want to see.

Cristian Ignacio Mir Diaz

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