Match fixing is a persistent problem for tennis. (Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

With the Grand Slam calendar set to begin Sunday with the Australian Open, tennis once again is dealing with allegations of match fixing at its lowest levels, a problem the sport cannot seem to shake.

Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, announced Thursday that the Spanish Civil Guard has arrested 83 people, including 28 professional tennis players, over their alleged involvement in fixing matches at Challenger and ITF Futures tournaments in Spain. Such events represent the second and third tiers of professional tennis, where unknown professional players toil at hundreds of barely noticed tournaments each year with hopes of acquiring the points needed to move up the rankings.

One of the arrested players took part in last year’s U.S. Open, though Europol did not divulge any names.

“The suspects bribed professional players to guarantee predetermined results and used the identities of thousands of citizens to bet on the prearranged games,” Europol said in a news release. “A criminal group of Armenian individuals used a professional tennis player, who acted as the link between the gang and the rest of the criminal group. Once they bribed the players, the Armenian network members attended the matches to ensure that the tennis players complied with what was previously agreed, and gave orders to other members of the group to go ahead with the bets placed at national and international level.”

It’s the second time in a little more than two years that law-enforcement officials have cracked down on match fixing on the Iberian peninsula. In December 2016, Spanish law enforcement officials detained 34 people, including six tennis players ranked between Nos. 800 and 1,200 in the world, alleging they were involved in a match-fixing network in Spain and Portugal. The players allegedly received about $1,000 per match for losing specific points or games in 17 Futures and Challenger tournaments in Spain.

Therein lies one of the reasons match-fixing is so prevalent at these lower-tier events: The prize money involved is often paltry, giving players an incentive to throw matches at tournaments in far-flung locales that few people are watching.

For instance, a 24-year-old Spaniard named David Perez Sanz won six titles on the ITF Futures Tour last year — five in Egypt and one in Sri Lanka — but took home less than $20,000 in tournament winnings for the year. For comparison’s sake, Roger Federer received nearly $3 million alone for winning last year’s Australian Open. Players who lost first-round matches at the U.S. Open received $50,000.

“You hear so many stories about other players getting approached,” Laslo Urrutia Fuentes, an ITF Futures Tour player, told the New York Times last year. “They say when they are playing really weak players, someone says, ‘Lose the first set and you will get $6,000.’ ”

According to an International Tennis Federation study cited by the New York Times last year, 6,000 of the 14,000 players who entered ITF Futures tournaments around the globe in 2013 didn’t earn one cent of prize money. Only 336 men and 253 women out of the 14,000 broke even, when factoring in costs for travel and lodging.

“That’s quite astonishing for a sport that has almost $300 million in prize money,” Kris Dent, the ITF’s senior executive director of professional tennis, told the Times. “These smaller tournaments have no TV, no sponsorships and no one paying any money to go see them, and they never will.”

Last year, an Independent Review Panel — sanctioned by tennis’s governing bodies — issued recommendations on tackling match fixing in a report that took more than two years to complete. One of the proposals was to reduce the number of pro players at the sport’s lowest levels to ensure that prize money “is better targeted to enable more of the men and women taking part to make a living.” This year, the ITF is doing just that by putting the top 750 men and women into the Challenger Tour, where the prize money and opportunity for advancement are greater. The rest will play in something called the Transition Tour, which will still offer a pathway to tennis’s higher ranks while offering more localized tournaments, cutting down on travel costs.

One level up, the Challenger Tour will increase the size of its singles draws from 48 from 32, creating 2,400 more spots per year. Plus, all Challenger tournaments will be required to supply players with hotel accommodations.

The sheer number of events at tennis’s lower levels also can fuel match fixing. Players enter as many tournaments as they can, but if the next event on the schedule both offers more lucrative spoils and overlaps with their current tournament, it may give them incentive to tank.

“This is a significant, recurring problem at the lower levels of the tennis when doubles competitions, which are often viewed by players as less important or valuable, conflict with a singles event in the following week,” the Independent Review Panel report said. “Players on occasion perceive themselves as better off losing and moving on than seeking to stay in a competition, and some act on that perception.”

The report also recommended beefing up the Tennis Integrity Unity, which was established by the sports’ governing bodies in 2008 but has been criticized as understaffed and ill-equipped to deal with the modern methods of match fixing. In 2018, the TIU sanctioned 21 people for offenses such as match fixing, failing to report corruption and refusing to cooperate with its investigations, banning eight players and officials from the sport for life. Most of the sanctioned players had career-high rankings in the triple digits.

Even with reform, the rise of online gambling and the very nature of the sport make it ripe for match-fixing.

“The nature of the game lends itself to manipulation for betting purposes,” the Independent Review Panel report said. “There are many contingencies. There is only one player who must act. Detection is difficult, not least because at many lower level matches there are no spectators and inadequate facilities to protect players from potential corrupters. Moreover, underperformance is often attributed to ‘tanking,’ which too often has been tolerated.”

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