(Photo via Getty)
On a nice warm day at Melbourne Park, the tournament was getting ready to welcome the first fans of the two-week event but a large shadow was cast over proceedings on Monday courtesy of the investigation carried by the BBC and BuzzFeed, which said that over the last decade, a core group of 16 players have repeatedly been brought to the attention of the sport’s governing bodies over suspicions they have fixed matches.
The report said the group also included "winners of grand slam titles".
World No1 Novak Djokovic, who had revealed almost a decade ago that he was approached to throw a match in St. Petersburg for £110,000, confirmed the incident on Monday but said he was never approached directly and denounced the practice as a “crime in sport”.
“I was approached through people that were working with me at that time, that were with my team. Of course, we threw it away right away. It didn't even get to me, there was nothing out of it,” said the defending Australian Open champion.
“It made me feel terrible because I don't want to be in any way linked to this - somebody may call it an opportunity. For me, it's an act of bad sportsmanship, a crime in sport honestly.”
Play started at 11:00 yesterday in Melbourne and by noon, an announcement was made in the media room that a press conference would take place at 12:20 with ATP executive chairman and president Chris Kermode, Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) head Nigel Willerton, and vice chairman Mark Young to address the gambling-related corruption allegations.
The three officials addressed the media with a host of tennis chiefs, including WTA CEO Steve Simon and Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley, standing close by in a sign of solidarity – sending a message that the tennis world was united in rejecting the allegations.
“The Tennis Integrity Unit and the tennis authorities absolutely reject any suggestion that evidence of match fixing has been suppressed for any reason or isn't being thoroughly investigated,” Kermode said in an opening statement.
“And while the BBC and BuzzFeed reports mainly refer to events from about 10 years ago, we will investigate any new information, and we always do.”
Willerton was asked whether he can confirm or deny that players currently competing on tour, or in Melbourne, are being monitored by the TIU for match-fixing offences.
“It would be inappropriate for me to make comment as to whether any players are under investigation at the present time,” Willerton responded.
The TIU was set up in 2008 – after a match in Sopot between Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vasallo Arguello was flagged for match-fixing suspicion - to tackle corruption within the sport and Kermode cited the 18 convictions including six lifetime bans handed out by the unit as proof that no offence goes unnoticed.
All six lifetime bans were given to unheralded players from the lower ranks of the sport. Match-fixing is believed to be more present in the lower tiers of tennis like Challengers and Futures where players barely earn enough money to make ends meet.
When asked whether paying lower-ranked professionals more might combat the threat, Federer responded to the journalist: “I completely disagree with you. I think you don't understand. “It doesn't matter how much money you pump into the system, there's always going to be people approaching players, or people, in any sport.”
The match-fixing allegations come on the heels of a new sponsorship deal that was signed between the Australian Open and William Hill last October that made the company the first-ever gambling partner of a grand slam event.
The deal means there are gambling ads in several areas around Melbourne Park, an act which has been heavily criticised as it strengthens the ties between tennis and betting and it also encourages young fans of the sport to gamble.
Djokovic admits tennis is walking a fine line by taking sponsorship money from betting providers.
“This is a subject for discussion, I think, today and in the future. It's a fine line. Honestly it's on a borderline, I would say,” said Djokovic.
Djokovic crashes @CraigTiley's interview after today's draw (forgive the terrible filming) pic.twitter.com/sWxZyf4uVS— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) January 15, 2016
Australian Open tournament director and Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley defended the decision to partner with William Hill.
“The interesting thing is that the sport of tennis has already been partnered with many (betting companies) because Perform as a broadcaster provide all the content directly onto the betting providers. They just act as an intermediary to do that,” Tiley had told me on Sunday.
“And then there are tennis tournaments around the world like the German Open, Bet365 I believe (Bet-at-Home Open). So we didn’t see it as an issue.
“They’re very reputable, they’re a well-respected organisation, everything they do is legal. And I think people make the automatic assumption if you have that type of partnership, it’s illegal. Would you compare that to having a type of partnership with a company that produces food that’s not good for you?
“For us it’s a good partnership that they can also help us identify any illegal activity and so that close partnership gets us closer to that because we want to make sure we’re avoiding it as a sport.”