The man who makes the tennis world nervous
EDITOR'S NOTE: For nearly four months, ESPN's Enterprise Unit has investigated what could go down as the most notorious match in tennis history, the Aug. 2 match in Sopot, Poland, between Nikolay Davydenko of Russia and Martin Vassallo Arguello of Argentina. In reports for ESPN.com and ESPN's "Outside the Lines", ESPN reconstructs how the match unfolded, reveals confidential information from the investigation conducted by the men's tennis tour of the wagering on the match and presents an accomplished gambler's conclusions on whether the match was fixed. In this story from the upcoming issue of ESPN The Magazine, ESPN takes a look at the ATP's response to the tennis gambling scandal.
The gambling parlors along Vienna's Laxenburger Strasse are hungry for customers tonight. A few die-hard punters stand in the rain, peering through steamy windows for the luck that may linger inside. A man in a tight-fitting leather jacket stands on a dimly lit corner beneath a sign he hopes will entice some of them his way. Wetten ist geil. Betting is sexy.Inside his shop, Bet Paradise, a half-dozen grim-faced gamblers smoke unfiltered cigarettes and sneak peeks at the curvy Serbian cashier as they keep track of various games and matches on flat screens that hang on the wall. Martin Führer, the man in the leather jacket, taps his long fingers impatiently, waiting for them to fill out their betting slips. The pressure of running his own parlor has begun to crease his 30-year-old face. He misses his old life, the one he spent as a party boy on the pro tennis circuit, where his exploits earned him a nickname that would be his undoing: The Gambling King. Führer was everyone's friend, a former model whose looks and live-for-the-moment manner opened doors. The ATP Tour was his NASDAQ. He studied picks in intimate detail, and to do his research, he paid his own way to tournaments from Miami to Monte Carlo. He hung around players' hotels and lounges, got himself invited to the right meals and parties. What began as $100 bets quickly became $1,000 ones. Before long, $10,000 was the norm. But even as Führer kicked back in players' lounges placing bets on his mobile, no one seemed to care much about the fact he'd become one of the heaviest tennis bettors in the world.
The fun ended on May 18, 2004, when Führer won roughly $23,000 on an obscure ATP event held about 40 miles outside Vienna. An Austrian gambling firm immediately froze his bet, accusing Führer of conspiring to fix a match. Since then, he's been poison to bookies; no one will take his action. That's why he has put his savings into this parlor on the edge of the red-light district.
In a one-bedroom apartment across from a Vienna park, Führer waves off any suggestion that his access to the back rooms of the tennis world made him unique. "What makes me special? Nothing. I'm a normal guy."
Tennis and gambling
ESPN's Enterprise Unit conducted a four-month investigation into the suspicious gambling activity surrounding an Aug. 2, 2007, match between Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo Arguello. Read the report by John Barr and William Weinbaum here.
Five months into the 2004 season, Führer climbed into his BMW and drove the 40 miles outside Vienna to the industrial town of St. Pölten. A small tournament was underway, and the fourth-seeded Labadze was scheduled to play a first-round match against an unseeded Austrian, Julian Knowle.
Last August, with the Cashpoint case still pending, Nikolay Davydenko walked onto a court in Sopot, Poland. His opponent was the 87th-ranked Argentine, Martin Vassallo Arguello. Davydenko won the first set easily, 6-2. Fans saw nothing unusual in Davydenko's early lead, but Betfair executives in London did. More than $7 million had been laid on the match, at least a fifth of which came from nine Russian customers. All of them had picked Davydenko to lose. So when he dropped the second set before withdrawing in the third with a foot injury, Betfair took the unprecedented step of voiding all bets on the match. Young, the ATP's general counsel, insists his organization wasn't caught unawares by the incident. "It didn't wake us up from a powerful sleep," he says. "It didn't shake us into sudden activity. We've been on top of this." He blames the slow pace of investigation on the vague nature of gambling cases. "People see the same incident six different ways," he says. "No one has hard evidence."
A worldwide television audience of more than a billion people watched Djokovic take the Australian Open on Jan. 27 with booming ground strokes and pinpoint serves. But as long as the rank-and-file build their careers in places like Sopot, Poland -- and as long as gamblers know where to find them -- the shadow of corruption will dog the ATP. By the time the tour passed an emergency rule last fall that required players to report suspicious contact within 48 hours, the bookmakers' secret list of questionable matches had ballooned beyond 140. "In Austria, it's a new experience to try to prove a tennis match is a fake," says Paar, Cashpoint's lawyer. "We tried everything, but in the end we lost for lack of evidence." Watching Davydenko get dragged ever further into the gambling investigation, Führer is relieved his own case is over. "I am not a criminal," he says, sounding like the wounded victim. "Why this big story? Just because I bet one bet on a tennis match and have this luck and won?" Führer, of course, insists the evidence that Paar seeks doesn't exist. He says he's just a hard-working guy who used every tool available to him to make a buck. Well, every tool but one: "I never spoke with Labadze about tanking a tennis match for money." As a new season gets rolling, Führer has a hankering to get back out on the circuit. "I have many friends there," he says. But he also knows he's too high-profile to pass unnoticed. Anyway, his friends are older now. "They probably just want to drink a glass of red wine and go to bed early." So he'll stay at Bet Paradise, hoping none of the dour-faced chain smokers at his tables have access to the kind of inside information he once did. Shaun Assael, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, writes extensively about doping in sports in his new book, "Steroid Nation," available here.
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