Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
Nikolay Davydenko wipes his face during a match in the China Open Tennis Tournament, Sept. 13, 2007.
Nikolay Davydenko wipes his face during a match in the China Open Tennis Tournament, Sept. 13, 2007. Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
The image of tennis has long been that of a rather dainty exercise, played before ladies and gentlemen on lawns — not anything so declasse as "fields."
It was the last major sport in which amateurs, not those grubby professionals, competed in the most important championships. "Love" is in the scoring.
The one expression most often used to put down its snooty image is the sweetly asked, "Tennis, anyone?" But in fact, tennis has always had a dark underside. It's revealing that that denigrating expression was, in fact, almost surely first uttered on Broadway by a young actor named Humphrey Bogart — who, of course, became Bogie, the quintessential hard-boiled egg.
Say it like the latter Bogart, growly: "Tennis, anyone?" — and you get the more accurate depiction of reality. Through the years, a culture of deceit and hypocrisy infected the sport.
Sure, it remained amateur, but everyone knew that the players — casually known as "tennis bums" — were being paid under the table, often by the very men who made the rules.
Conflict of interest raged. Players understood that losing a match on purpose — "tanking" was the everyday verb — was tolerated.
In the many years I covered tennis, I heard it all: who was pulling the strings, who was double-dealing, who was taking drugs, who was sleeping with whom. But for all the genial corruption, never did I hear — or know anyone else who heard — that some player fixed a match for money, until Internet betting arrived a few years ago.
It will probably shock most Americans to learn that, on the Internet, tennis is the third most popular betting sport in the world, after only horse racing and soccer. As early as 2003, there were reports that players were throwing matches.
The men's sport is set up almost to encourage it. Players are allowed to take guarantees, but don't have to let the public know. Players have the right not to count certain matches in their ranking. You play, you get guaranteed money, you lose, you inform the officials it doesn't count.
Last year, Betfair, by far the largest Internet betting company, took the extreme step of voiding all bets on a match that Nikolay Davydenko, then the world's No. 4 player, lost — most curiously, while millions of dollars piled in on his underdog opponent.
A review funded by the sport's most prominent body itself, the Association of Tennis Professionals, came up with 44 other suspect matches. More than a dozen pros have disclosed that they were approached to fix matches — often right in a tournament locker room, even at Wimbledon. Murder in the cathedral!
Imagine if Vegas voided all bets on an NBA game, and an investigation showed 44 others were dubious and a dozen players had been approached. It would be cataclysmic. But that's what happened in tennis — and, as always, nothing budged.
Last week, after a year and after all the media had departed the U.S. Open, the ATP completely cleared Davydenko. So tennis goes on, as before, in a twilight world, where rules are made to be winked at. There are no more tennis bums but, for me, the whole beautiful sport is a tennis bummer.