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How to fix tennis, not its matches


Nicolas Alexiou

By

February 3rd, 2017


The life of a tennis player is commonly perceived to be lavish and glamorous. Nicolas Alexiou explains how this is far from the full truth, and explores how we can stop players from being tempted by match-fixers.


After a thrilling two weeks, the Australian Open has concluded with the triumphs of Roger Federer and Serena Williams. However, the tournament was almost shrouded in controversy before it even began. Reigning Australian Open junior champion Oliver Anderson was charged with match-fixing at a challenger tournament in late 2016. Anderson’s championship was proof of his talent, and he seemingly had the tennis world at his feet, so where did it all go wrong?

 

Constant Temptation

Sadly, the temptation for quick reward was too much for Anderson. This temptation is by no means unique to him – Thanasi Kokkinakis and even Novak Djokovic have been offered incentives to fix their matches. [1] Social media was used by those approaching Kokkinakis to tank, and can be impossible for players to block out. [2] Similarly, Australian Davis Cup representative Sam Groth recently gave his Facebook page to his agent after receiving death threats against himself and his family, whenever he lost. [3] Players can be bombarded with match fixing offers in the same way.

 

The difference in earnings between tours

The money is an extreme temptation for tennis players, particularly those on the relatively unknown Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Challenger Tour, who earn much less than players on the ATP World Tour, the highest form of professional tennis.  The difference in prize money between the two tours is extreme. In 2016, a quarterfinalist at the Shanghai Masters world tour event earnt more individually than all 96 players combined at the most lucrative challenger tournament. To compound the issue, whilst world tour prize money has continued to rise, challenger prize money has fallen, adjusted for inflation.

 

 

Comparison of percentage change in prize money for challenger, world tour and world tour finals tournaments since 1978 (adjusted for inflation) Source: Cleaning the lines

Comparison of percentage change in prize money for challenger, world tour and world tour finals tournaments since 1978 (adjusted for inflation) Source: Cleaning the lines

 

Take former US top 100 player Michael Russell. In 2013 he won a challenger tournament in Ecuador, but the US$5,000 award barely covered his flights, accommodation and equipment costs. [4] He estimated that a player in 2012 needed to earn US$75,000 annually just to break even. This sum is trivial for a world tour player, yet can be impossible to amass for a challenger tour player.

 

First solution: raise qualifying draw prize money

One clear solution is to increase the prize money at the lower levels of grand slams. This proposal is supported by grand slam doubles champion Paul McNamee, who would like to see qualifying prize money tripled. [5] For a challenger player who earns US$5,000 from winning a tournament, collecting US$10,000 for losing in the second round of US Open qualifying is incredible. Imagine if that were tripled to US$30,000, as McNamee suggests. A US$20,000 change to the champion’s prize money would be barely noticeable, but this change in qualifying money would mean everything to a struggling player. That money could make a challenger player’s year, ensure their profitability, and subsequently reduce incentives for match fixing.

 

Flow on effects of increased respect

More support for players at lower levels would not only curb match fixing, but would also encourage more talented, young athletes to pursue a tennis career. The 125th ranked golfer in 2010 was estimated to have earnt US$1m for his years’ work. [6] The current 125th ranked tennis player, Joao Souza, has earnt less than US$1.25m in his 13 years on tour combined. [7] Individuals who showed promise as tennis players, such as NFL footballer Tony Romo and NBA basketballer Dirk Nowitzki, often choose better paid sports with more recognition and support. [8] Who could blame them, when the 350th best basketballer or American footballer is estimated to have earnt ten times more than the 350th best tennis player in 2016. [7] [9]

 

Second solution: Combining the tours.

A second, and more long-term solution, would be to merge the challenger and world tours as much as possible. For example, last Tuesday challenger tournaments began in Rennes and Maui, while Hisense Arena and a further five outside courts at Melbourne Park were not in use. Instead of these tournaments being held abroad, imagine if one of them was held in Melbourne, making use of these empty courts. The players would benefit firstly from increased prize money, derived from the Australian Open’s sponsors and ticket sales. Secondly, they would benefit from basic hospitality, which is a staple of a grand slam yet too expensive for many challenger tournaments. [10] Most importantly, they would benefit from exposure, both to a wider audience and to the highest level of tennis. This could give them the drive that they need to break onto the world tour and to make it at this highest level. Further, with increased scrutiny and the experienced officials in a more professional environment, players would be far less inclined to fix their matches. Combining the two tours as much as possible can only benefit fans, players and the sport.

 

Conclusion

Match-fixing is an issue that will continue to plague the sport of tennis in the years to come. It is born out of financial insecurity, lack of fame and uncertainty around the future. However, it is by no means impossible to abolish. Respecting players at the bottom end of grand slams with more prizemoney is a worthy start, and a simple solution that can allow players to become profitable. Additionally, combining tennis’ two tours as much as possible could just lead to match fixing’s permanent eradication.

 

Main image source: http://www.tennis-forecast.com/tournament/poprad-tatry-atp-challenger-tour

Graph source: https://cleaningthelines.wordpress.com/2014/07/20/29-challenging-prize-money/

[1] Willoughby, J. (2017). Tennis match fixing: How it has become ‘very easy’ for players. The New Daily. Retrieved 29 January 2017, from http://thenewdaily.com.au/sport/tennis/2017/01/11/match-fixing-in-tennis/

[2] Tennis match-fixing: Thanasi Kokkinakis reveals he was offered to fix matches via social media. (2016). ABC News. Retrieved 29 January 2017, from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-01-19/kokkinakis-approached-to-fix-tennis-matches/7098054

[3] Walsh, C. (2016). Sam Groth says rise of gambling has stars facing online death threats. The Australian. Retrieved 29 January 2017, from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/sport/tennis/sam-groth-says-rise-of-gambling-has-stars-facing-online-death-threats/news-story/4e0986d6bc6e1e409c88ecdc5c905ca5

[4] Morales, M. (2013). How The 92nd-Ranked Tennis Player In The World Earns A Comfortable Living. Forbes. Retrieved 29 January 2017, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/miguelmorales/2013/08/26/aces-into-assets-how-michael-russell-has-made-a-profitable-career-in-the-demanding-world-of-pro-tennis/#1bb69c9f50bf

[5] Match fixing pervades tennis because low-ranked players struggle to break even, Paul McNamee says. (2017). ABC News. Retrieved 29 January 2017, from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-01-11/paul-mcnamee-tennis-match-fixing-prize-money/8174808

[6] ATP Challenger Tour short on prize money, long on skill and chock full of – yep – challenges. (2011). TENNIS.COM. Retrieved 29 January 2017, from http://www.tennis.com/pro-game/2011/08/atp-challenger-tour-short-on-prize-money-long-on-skill-and-chock-full-of—yep—challenges/31507/

[7] ATP World Tour. (2007, 30 Janurary). Rankings | Singles | ATP World Tour | Tennis. Retrieved February 1, 2017, from http://www.atpworldtour.com/en/rankings/singles

[8] Morgan, A. (2014). 6 professional athletes who could also have a career in tennis. Sports Illustrated. Retrieved 29 January 2017, from http://www.si.com/tennis/2014/11/03/professional-athletes-who-could-also-have-a-tennis-career#

[9] Bialik, C. (2014). Tennis Has An Income Inequality Problem. FiveThirtyEight. Retrieved 1 February 2017, from https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/tennis-has-an-income-inequality-problem/

[10] ATP 2017 Calendar. (2017) (1st ed., pp. 3-4). Retrieved from http://www.atpworldtour.com/en/tournaments

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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