Suspicions follow Davydenko heading to U.S. Open

8/23/2007 - Tennis

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Nikolay Davydenko, balding and spidery-thin, was wearing a black ensemble Wednesday night at the Pilot Pen tournament.

The symbolism -- and the irony -- might have been lost on him.

Davydenko, the top seed and defending champion here, rallied to dispatch 18-year-old American Donald Young 6-2, 4-6, 7-5. But the second-round result was hardly the story.

For still flying under the sports corruption radar in the wake of Michael Vick's legal issues and referee Tim Donaghy's admission that he bet on NBA games is this disturbing question:

Did the 26-year-old from Volgograd, Russia -- the No. 4-ranked player in the world -- fix an Aug. 2 tennis match in Poland?

When the question was asked Wednesday night, Davydenko frowned and turned to Fabienne Benoit, the ATP on-site media manager. After a 20-second translation in German, which they both speak, he shook his head and shrugged, palms up. He responded by saying he didn't want to talk about the Martin Vassallo Arguello match.

Even after journalists replayed the tape several times, it still wasn't clear if Davydenko's "no" referred to the question -- or his desire not to talk about it.

Twenty minutes later, Benoit appeared and explained that Davydenko had not understood the question. When she explained it to him after the interview, Davydenko's response to the match-fixing question, she said, had been an emphatic, "Of course not."

Like everything else in this unspooling story, there appear to be no easy answers.

On Aug. 2, Davydenko retired from a second-round match in Poland trailing Arguello in the third set, 6-2, 3-6, 1-2. It was a substantial upset for the No. 87-ranked Argentine, but it turned out that a number of people somehow saw it coming. Some $7 million -- more than 10 times the usual amount wagered on a low-profile match -- backed Arguello. More suspiciously, an hour before the match the odds swung in favor of Arguello, he went from a 6.0 long shot to a 1.51 favorite. Even after Davydenko won the first set money continued to pour in for Arguello.

Somebody, apparently, knew something.

Betfair, the world's largest Internet wagering company, detected the unusual action during the match through its 40-man fraud team and, eventually, voided all bets. In its seven-year history, the London-based company had never taken a bet off the board.

"The evidence was so compelling," said Robin Marks, Betfair's head of media. "With the money coming in at the end of the first set and the sheer volume of the money, it was clear something was wrong. We notified the ATP during the match and told them we were unhappy."

Since then, Davydenko -- and the ATP's credibility -- has been under scrutiny.

ESPN.com has learned that the incident has prompted the Grand Slams, the International Tennis Federation, the ATP and WTA to engage in discussions to establish a unified anti-gambling event program that would apply to all professional events. This would be modeled on the existing anti-doping program for tennis.

Davydenko had been bothered by a stress fracture in his foot for several weeks -- and even though he claims few people outside his personal circle knew about it -- the injury was a factor in his losing four of his previous five matches. This could not have been lost on a potential bettor with more than a casual interest in the game.

The ATP hired an independent investigator who, according to the organization, will be interviewing those who placed big bets as well as Davydenko with assistance from the British Horseracing Authority. Any ATP player found guilty of fixing a match faces a lifetime ban. Davydenko said Wednesday night he had not yet been interviewed by ATP investigators.

It should be noted, no player has ever been banned for fixing a match.

"We've examined and investigated this issue for many years and don't believe there's a corruption problem in tennis," ATP corporate communications director Kris Dent said from London. "But with the explosion in online gambling, every sport needs to be aware of the dangers."

Davydenko first addressed the situation two weeks ago in Montreal. Despite 16 questions on the subject from the assembled media, Davydenko was never asked directly if he was guilty of throwing the match in Poland.

Davydenko said he knows people are talking about the controversy in Russia and elsewhere. "Mentally, it's pretty tough," he said.

With the U.S. Open only days away, the United States Tennis Association is preparing to face the problem head-on. It is sure to be an emerging topic next week when the world's tennis media gathers in Flushing, N.Y.

The USTA already has begun a dialogue with players and officials about the dangers of gambling. Newly posted signs in the men's and women's locker rooms, player lounge, as well as officials and medical areas and other non-public places read as follows:

"REMINDER: The participation in or aiding and abetting, directly or indirectly, of any form of gambling or betting involving tennis is strictly prohibited. The USTA has a zero-tolerance policy on gambling or betting involving tennis, and any violation of such policy will result in immediate disciplinary action."

What would that discipline be? According to Chris Widmaier, the USTA's senior director of public relations, the Grand Slam rulebook takes precedence. Any player in violation would be 1) Fined up to $100,000 or have their prize money withdrawn, whichever is greater, 2) Suspended from play from one or more Grand Slams for up to three years. Beyond that, he said, the ATP and WTA would have jurisdiction.

Officials, doctors, massage therapists and other contract employees would have their contracts terminated, and likely never return.

"It goes right to the integrity of the game," Widmaier said, "so we take it very seriously."

Easy money?

The very thing that makes tennis so compelling -- the mano y mano competition -- also makes it more susceptible to gamblers. Because singles is only a two-athlete proposition, tennis is a much easier sport in which to influence a result than a team sport. Like boxing, all it takes is the cooperation of one participant to affect the outcome of a result.

Davydenko told reporters in Montreal that he feels tennis is popular among bettors because it's unlike team sports such as soccer and basketball, especially when it comes to singles matches.

According to Betfair's Marks, tennis is the third-most popular sport for gamblers, a good distance behind horse racing and soccer. Tennis, however, is the fastest-growing sport. In July, Betfair handled 71.5 million trades.

In any instance where sport and gambling collide, the real currency is information. Who is playing well -- or poorly? What is a player's state of mind? How will injuries -- a huge, almost daily factor in tennis -- affect how the match plays out?

The people who possess this information: players, coaches, trainers, racket stringers and those who hover around the professional game.

"I could be a multimillionaire -- if I chose to be," one ATP player -- who wished to remain anonymous -- said this week in New Haven. "You see everything that happens in the locker room and it has a direct result on the court.

"I'm sure [fixing] happens. It's too easy. To be honest, I don't know how anyone could find out about it."

Instances of people seeking inside information, according to some players, are not uncommon.

"There have been anonymous calls to players' rooms with some monetary offerings -- I know that," U.S. doubles champion Bob Bryan told the Los Angeles Times. "And I know every player I've talked to has turned it down."

Michael Russell, the ATP's No. 67-ranked player, said he has never been offered money to lose a match. That doesn't mean people haven't asked him pointed questions about his fitness.

"Happens all the time," Russell said. "At the time they seemed like innocent questions. Looking back now, I'm kind of wondering."

"It's not a question of if, but how much," said one observer intimate with the ATP. "It's too easy to get an online account and bet."

That insider, who asked for anonymity, has been around the Tour for more than 15 years, laid out this chilling, but completely fictional scenario:

"Imagine you're a no-name player, just lost an early afternoon match in Cincinnati. You're getting some treatment in the trainer's room. In comes [Andy] Roddick, saying he turned his ankle on the practice court. It's not that bad and he tells the doc he's going to give it a go tonight in his match.

"Now you leave, go back to the hotel, get online because you've got nothing else to do. So what are you going to do to make life a little more interesting?

"There's really nothing you can do. Sports and betting will always be there."

Larry Stefanki, who coaches Australian Open finalist Fernando Gonzalez, said in Montreal that he was questioned closely about a player back in Melbourne in January.

"Two English dudes," Stefanki said. "I started laughing at them and said, 'You're nuts.' These guys are gamblers for a living. If it gets out, even one word, it spreads like wildfire. It makes the game dirty."

USTA officials already have had discussions with officials and players emphasizing this position.

At the last Grand Slam, Wimbledon, the men's final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal drew $60 million in wagers, according to Betfair.

"From a betting point view, tennis is a great game to bet on," said Betfair's Marks. "You've got a 50-50 chance -- and you can change your position during the match, take the opposing view as we call it."

Betfair is essentially a middle man that brokers bets between two gamblers and charges a 3-5 percent commission. Because so many people change positions during matches, the actual payout is usually far less than the amount wagered. For example, the $60 million bet on the Wimbledon final resulted in only $5 million in actual winnings.

Davydenko has never advanced to the final of a Grand Slam event, but he has won 10 singles titles and more than $6 million in prize money. In recent years he has become one of the ATP's iron men; last year he played 96 matches, second only to Federer's 97. He has developed a reputation as a tennis mercenary who will travel anywhere for a robust paycheck.

There has been a price for that heavy schedule; Davydenko has withdrawn from eight matches in the last four years.

It's been an uncommonly difficult year for Davydenko. Back in January he incensed tournament organizers in Sydney, Australia, calling the event irrelevant and ultimately was fined $12,000 by the ATP. In July, he called rain-plagued Wimbledon "boring."

To this point, he has been cooperative in his dealings with the media. In fact, he said, the issue had presented a silver lining of sorts.

"It's not all bad," Davydenko said last week after advancing to the quarterfinals in Cincinnati. "Probably 20 percent more fans know who I am now. Still, if I need to be more popular, I need to be top-five plus winning a Grand Slam."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.