Friday, November 17, 2017

'I hope you realize how deep the rabbit hole is'


I was walking to my neighborhood Starbucks one morning last year when I received a Facebook message request from "Ben Rotenberg."

"Hello mr Ben," the sender began, "are you interesting information about fixed match? I be write in Russian."

I was certainly interested in learning more about this figure who had created a Facebook account in (almost) my name for the sole purpose of contacting me, so we switched to Russian.

Tediously translating his messages and then my responses, we began to talk. He said he had read an article I had written about match fixing in tennis and the case of a first-round match at a small tournament in Dallas that had been flagged for suspicious betting patterns and volume.

That match, my new Facebook friend said, was "only a drop in the ocean."

"I hope you realize how deep the rabbit hole is," he added. "I personally suffered from these people. And they have a sense of impunity. It must stop."

Not confident in the secrecy of Facebook, even with this puppet account, he moved our conversation to Viber, a messaging app popular in Eastern Europe that never stores communications on a server.

On the second day of correspondence, he asked me to find the live-score display of a match at an ATP Challenger event that was midway through the first set. "You cannot talk to anyone about this," he said.

He then named the player who he declared would have his serve broken in the second service game of the second set. As that set began, he said he had learned that the score of the set would be 6-0.

Sure enough, one, two, three games quickly fell. Knowing that the ATP streams many Challenger matches live, I scrambled to find the correct page to watch the rest for myself. When I tuned in, it seemed I had found what I was promised. While some of the player's shots appeared ordinary, many were missed wildly wide and long, and others dumped droopily into the net. There was a double fault on match point, and the set ended with a score of 6-0 after just 19 minutes.

(The player whom I was told would throw the match was not a good actor. Several tennis gamblers noted on Twitter what they considered a blatant dumping of the match, with one creating a GIF of a serve that had landed near the baseline.)

In Melbourne last week, with reports of match fixing stealing the show at the Australian Open, I tracked down the player who won that match last year. I asked him what he remembered about it — specifically the speedy second set.

"He dropped his level, for sure," he said, adding that he had not suspected anything unusual. "I cannot say anything; I did not start to play amazing shots."

After that match, my new pen pal had written to me: "What do you think? I was not joking. Are you interested in getting into the hole?"

"I'm impressed," I replied.

Having proved his credentials, my source grew more effusive, telling me more about the channels by which games, sets and matches are bought and sold.

There was an international network of players and fixers, he said, with many of the fixers — himself included — having played tennis on some professional level. The connections these players already had in locker rooms around the circuit made them ideally suited for recruiting when they shifted from the playing side to the paying side of the equation. Communications, like ours, were conducted over Viber or other similar untraceable apps; phone numbers were often changed as well.

He named three former players who led the fixing rings in which he spun: one from Russia, one from Central Europe and one from Central Asia. I had heard of only one, but all three had profile pages on the ATP website showing rankings that never touched the top 150.

He reeled off several matches that he said included fixed sets.

Many were at the bottom-tier Futures level, where prize money of $10,000 is divided among all players, and first round losers in singles only get a check for $98. Some, though, were on the main ATP and WTA Tours (one allegedly planned 6-0 set, at a WTA tournament in China, had taken place two months earlier).

He also claimed to know the rough prices of various fixes on the menu, which I couldn't independently corroborate. Buying a service break at a Futures event cost $300 to $500, he said. A set was $1,000 to $2,000 and a match was $2,000 to $3,000.

It was more expensive to fix an outcome on the next higher tier, the Challenger level, with sets and matches running in the $10,000 to $15,000 range, he said.

On the ATP and WTA Tours, a single set could cost $25,000. A match was in the neighborhood of $100,000.

"It is an interesting spectacle," he said of buying a result. "You feel like a prophet."

Several times he tried to contact me while I was asleep to tell me about a fixed live match at the Futures level. I had never heard of any of the players he was mentioning. Although his information continued to seem accurate, much of it ultimately felt meaningless. There are about 120,000 professional tennis matches in a year; though thousands of dollars can flow through the betting markets of any of them with the expansion of live score data and then live betting, the ones at the lowest levels, from which the majority of his information sprung, meant little to the level of elite tennis that I cover.

Promising more information about matches at Grand Slams and the ATP and WTA Tours, he suggested I chip in some money so we could buy knowledge of the upper floors of the operations. After repeatedly making it clear that I would not cross that line, he went silent in December, and has not logged on to the Viber or Facebook accounts he had used since.

On Sunday, as I was at Court 6 at Melbourne Park watching an Australian Open mixed doubles match that someone else had flagged as suspicious, I was thinking about how curious wagering patterns and a player's pointedly poor performance are easy to spot — but aren't enough to conclusively prove fixing. For that, you need an invitation into the invisible. Mine might not come again.

Contributing: Masha Goncharova

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