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The Catch 22 of Lower Tier Professional Tennis: Match Fix or Fail

An active professional tennis player, ranked within the ATP system, revealed how the match fix process works and why the brutal tennis economy “forced” players to break the sport’s integrity in the lower levels of the game.

In an exclusive interview with tennis journalist Miguel Cicenia, the player, who requested anonymity, claimed most of the match-fixing takes place in Future and Challenger level tournaments.

The insignificant profits in the lower ranking circuit are far from sufficient to cover players’ expenses and make it nearly impossible to make a living.

A study conducted by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) in 2013 showed that 45% of the 13,736 players at all professional levels of the sport earned nothing from it, and only about 10% covered their costs.

Research also indicated the top 50 players earned 60% of the total prize money pool; 51-100 won over $200,000, 101-200 received $90,000, while players close to and above the #356 ATP ranking spot were able to “break even”.

Many players who struggle to find a sponsor or do not have the means to invest in their professional careers are forced to search funding alternatives, one of them being match-fixing.

The player said: “How can a player who is, I don’t know 27 years old, who has been playing futures for over nine years, and ranked 400 in the world able to subsist if he practically doesn’t win any money?

“Most players have to go through a process that takes years of training and hard work.

“People have to know that it takes a lot of effort and especially a huge amount of money.

“Not everybody has the talent as young players like (Nick) Kyrgios, (Alexander) Zverev or (Borna) Coric, who made it within the top 100 practically as teens.

“The rest of us have to go through a long process that not many people or companies are willing to sponsor.”

Studies showed that a professional tennis player reaches peak performance at the age of 25 with a range extending up to 27-28.

Examples of this include Stan Wawrinka, who won his first Grand Slam at age 28, and Spaniard Roberto Bautista-Agut, 27, whorecently made his best career start to a season winning two ATP titles (Auckland and Sofia), while veteran Victor Estrella-Burgos, 35, broke in the top 100 at the age of 28 and recently won his second ATP career title in Ecuador.

The ITF revealed through a ten-year period of research that the best junior players achieved an ATP rank before their 18th birthday and entered the Top 100 four to five years later, before the age of 22.

Meaning, even the best juniors in the world would still have to cover their expenses for at least four to five years of their professional careers, investing around $80,000 a year in their development until achieving the selected top 100, where tennis becomes a profitable business.

Most of these talented juniors will likely have sponsors backing them financially. However, if they do not achieve yearly required expectations, patience from sponsors quickly wears off (a great example is the case of Spanish junior talent Carlos Boluda).

“If you travel with a coach, which I believe you must if you want to have a chance out there, his honoraries are around 400-600 dollars a week while you would also have to pay for his airplane ticket, food, hotel, plus all of your personal expenses.

“How can you cover all of these costs if making it to quarterfinals in a Future, where you would have to beat a couple of guys that play pretty good, only earns you 300 bucks?

“And depending where you play, you also have to pay a certain amount of taxes, that rips off at least 20% of that absurd prize money.”

The average cost of playing professionally for a year is around $39,000; however, traveling with a coach will most likely double the amount.

In a smalle Future level tournament, the lowest among prize money at the professional level, $10,000 are split among the 32 main draw players, $7800 for singles and $2200 for doubles.

The winner receives $1,300, runner-up $900, semifinalists $490, quarterfinalist $290, second round losers $200 and losing in the first round will award a player $117.50.

Moreover, if a player is competing in a tournament as a foreigner, for instance in the USA, 30% will be deducted, leaving players with the following disappointing sums: champion $910, runner-up $630$, semifinalist $336, quarterfinalist $203, round of 16 $140, and round of 32 $85.25.

“Its a lot of pressure that falls on us, because when you stick for a while in Futures, sponsors start to disappear since we represent too much of a gamble for investment.

“And well family money is too much of a burden for players; tennis is so expensive you don’t want to dry up their money pursuing a dream, so players start looking for alternatives, and one of them is match fixing.

“Everybody knows only 100 guys earn money in tennis, and the rest stick around and hope that one day, with hard work and determination, they will become a part of that group.

“But players need time and the only way you can buy time is with money.

“Just to be clear, we’re not talking about making millions here, it’s rounding up the number so you can have enough to get you through the year, so you can keep playing without thinking about money.

“We already have more than enough problems facing the guy on the other side of the court.”

The player, who is still participating in Future and Challenger level tournaments mainly in the American continent, explained how the match-fixing process works.

“First of all, you need someone with a European account so that they can place the bets abroad. Then, there are different types of ways players fix matches.

“For example, if you are a top seed in a tournament and play, maybe a national wild card or a qualifier, or someone you are confident you will beat, you just choose a set to lose and tell your contact to place the bet.

“Most of the players prefer to lose the second set so it won’t be that obvious, but some of them just want to get the thing out of the way and lose the first, and then finish the guy off as fast as they can, staying fresh for the next round.

“But you can’t make things obvious. You have to play as if you’re trying to win; you don’t want to look suspicious.

“Playing out some well-fought points, busting your racket a couple of times with anger and losing 7-5 would do the trick. Besides, anybody can lose a set right?

“Some players prefer a quicker and easier way to make a buck, deciding to drop their service game, because when you serve, you can control the outcome of the game.

“Players will tell their contact to place a bet on their first service game in each set, or however you arrange with him.

“Then the job is simple: a couple of double faults, a forehand to the net and a missed volley or whatever, and there, you just earned $100.

“The only thing is that placing bets on single games can’t be for a high sum, it will seem very suspicious.

“But it’s an easy way to get some quick cash without staying on the court for too long. Remember, the goal here is to win the tournament, not to sell the entire match.”

The player added that the same schemes apply for doubles matches.
Match-fixing between close friends on tour is an ongoing plot and an effortless way to gather resources.

“Many times you see, close friends modeling up a match before playing against each other.

“Imagine, you’re traveling together for seven long weeks in crappy tournaments, sharing expenses, staying in the same room, training together; the draw comes out, and you have to play each other.

“The math is easy to add up. It’s a matter of agreeing who takes which set and then play the third set with everything you’ve got.
“Its pretty simple, both get cash, and whoever wins the third set goes on to the next round.

“In a certain way, everybody wins.”

Although he added, some players go for a more dangerous option.

“I know other guys who take the whole thing to another level.

“For instance, if they lose the first set and see the match is going to be a hard one to win, they will ask the umpire for a toilet break and sneak out their cellphones so they can quickly tell their contact what exactly is going to happen.

“That’s just a bit too much for me.”

Because of the lack of security during these low-level tournaments, which are rarely televised and played in remote locations, it is easy for players to be tempted to go on court and play out one of these schemes.

A significant problem for tennis authorities is the extreme difficulty in proving a match has been fixed; a player can have a bad day, or suboptimal effort can occur for a variety of reasons without necessarily committing a crime.

Authorities need strong evidence of direct contact between players and betting syndicates/gamblers to prove a case, even at Future/Challenger Tour level where financial rewards are minimal.

“I know what we are doing is wrong, we’re no angels, but the ATP and ITF do not take all players in their ranking seriously.

“This is just a way a few desperate guys choose to level the prize money to a reasonable amount so that they can keep playing professional tennis.

“I know it’s difficult to take all of this in, but people don’t know that we work eight hours a day seven days a week during 365 days a year, and we don’t even earn a penny.”

Between 2000 and 2014, the prize money at the Grand Slams events nearly doubled, but at the lower levels, it remained the same.

However, in 2015, the ITF agreed for better rewarding in the different type of lower level tournaments in the ATP and WTA circuit.

In the Men’s Circuit, $15,000 category tournaments will be increased to $25,000 in 2016, while the lower-level $10,000 tournaments will be raised to $15,000 in 2017. Additional rises are currently planned by the ITF for 2018 and will be announced in due course.

The Women’s Circuit, which currently includes tournaments between $10,000 and $100,000, will see the elimination of the $15,000 category in 2016 with the view that these tournaments will offer $25,000 in prize money. In 2017, prize money levels will rise to between $15,000 and $125,000, ahead of further proposed increases in 2018.


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