BRESSUIRE, France, Jan 16 – Thousands of kilometres from the bright lights of Melbourne and the stars on display at the Australian Open, the “scourge” of match-fixing in tennis” lower levels is one that France cannot escape.
An evil that gnaws away at the lower echelons of the professional game, the western French town of Bressuire, host to an ITF Futures event this week, found itself caught up in the sport’s latest controversy following the arrest of two would-be participants.
“Of course we speak about Bressuire a bit more now,” says a disgruntled volunteer who works at the tennis club in this town of around 20,000 residents, south-east of Nantes.
Two Frenchmen, aged 21 and 25, were detained Tuesday as part of a Belgian investigation. They had been due to compete in the doubles, and are suspected of taking “money in exchange for losing a set” at certain events between 2015 and 2018, according to French sports daily L’Equipe.
It’s a depressing, yet all too regular occurrence in a sport where elite players are handsomely paid but those in the lower echelons of the game can struggle to make ends meet.
Last year, the Independent Review Panel detailed a “tsunami” of match-fixing plaguing lower-level events, while Spanish police last week dismantled a gang that allegedly fixed professional matches, detaining 15 people and probing 68 others including players, following an official complaint by the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU).
– No surrender –
“You must not throw in the towel, and continue to act against this problem which we know cannot be solved by just one country,” French Tennis Federation (FFT) managing director Jean-Francois Vilotte told AFP.
“The fact there have been arrests shows that our alert systems work. But it’s never good news to learn than two Frenchmen have been arrested.”
Unsurprisingly the affair is on everyone’s lips around the courts in Bressuire.
“We, as tournament directors, are not comfortable with that. It’s now two, three years that it’s been worrying us. It’s true that it’s a scourge,” said Pierre-Jean Drouillard, co-director of the Bressuire event.
Such tournaments are overseen by volunteers and winners pocket roughly 1,500 euros ($1,711), a world away from the 4,100,000 Australian dollars ($2.95 million) the men’s and women’s singles champions will take home in Melbourne.
An environment largely for younger players starting out before reaching the main ATP tour, Futures event participants are typically ranked anywhere between 250 and 500 in the world, something akin to a Grand Slam qualifying field.
“At this level, if they’re not helped, these players lose money each year,” said a Bressuire club director, highlighting their vulnerability to nefarious betting rings.
– Banished court-siders undeterred –
“Lots of players tell us they know other players who have been approached to lose a set for money, but they find it difficult to talk about it,” said Drouillard. No player as yet has come to talk about it in Bressuire. “They’re definitely afraid.”
The FFT is trying to stem the problem. “It’s a concern to us and we’re dealing with it,” said vice-president Alain Moreau.
“We’re putting in place domestic rules limiting the use of mobile phones on courts, we have introduced badges for these tournaments, with areas reserved for players so they can’t be approached or harassed.”
Yet “court-siders”, who transmit real-time match updates to gambling syndicates, often quicker than TV or betting companies receive the data, proliferate the stands at these lesser events.
Not necessarily discrete and often foreigners “coming from countries from the East”, according to a club official, these cunning operators can enable gamblers to get an edge over their rivals.
“They’re on their phones all the time and sending information. Since the start of the week we have spotted and chucked out seven of them, but they come back, we can’t ban them,” explained Moreau.