Over 180 professional tennis players participated in a global match-fixing ring NPR's Ayesha Rascoe talks with Kevin Sieff of The Washington Post about his investigation into a transnational professional tennis match-fixing ring and how its leader got caught.

Over 180 professional tennis players participated in a global match-fixing ring

Over 180 professional tennis players participated in a global match-fixing ring

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NPR's Ayesha Rascoe talks with Kevin Sieff of The Washington Post about his investigation into a transnational professional tennis match-fixing ring and how its leader got caught.

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The U.S. Open comes to a close tonight, but far from the most prestigious tournaments in tennis, a betting scandal has thrown the integrity of the sport into question. It's been called the sport's biggest ever match-fixing ring, and it played out in some of the lowest levels of professional tennis. The scandal is detailed by Kevin Sieff of The Washington Post in a two-part investigation, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

KEVIN SIEFF: Good to be here.

RASCOE: So over 180 players from more than 30 countries colluded to build this match-fixing ring. Tell me about this. Like, when did this start? How did it happen?

SIEFF: Yeah. So this ring began in 2014, and it began in Brussels, Belgium. There was a young man named Grigor Sargsyan who, at that point, was a law student in Brussels, and he was surrounded by friends who were gambling on sports. And Grigor started wondering whether there was a way to gamble on tennis that would guarantee the outcome of the wager. And what he learned as he did a little bit of research is that tennis players at the lowest tier of the sport make almost nothing. And once he figured out that these players were corruptible, that they were vulnerable to this sort of bribery, he grew the network from one player to more than 180 over the course of two or three years.

RASCOE: The players who participated in this - they didn't even have to, like, throw the entire match. Sometimes, they could do just a couple of points here or there. How did that work? And are people really, you know, betting that much on these low-level tennis matches?

SIEFF: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that surprised me in my reporting was just how huge gambling on tennis has become. It's now a $50-billion-a-year industry. And it's not just people betting on the outcomes of matches. It's people betting on parts of very obscure matches, as you said, a point or a set or a game. And so Sargsyan was able to convince players that they didn't even need to lose an entire match. They could lose a game or a set, potentially still win the tournament if they guarantee the outcome of a part of that match. So that's what people refer to as spot fixing.

RASCOE: Well, what made, you know, these kind of lower-level professional tennis tournaments - what made them such a great target for match fixing?

SIEFF: There are just so many of these tournaments. I mean, there are 60,000 professional tennis matches a year around the world. And so just the sheer number of matches makes it appetizing for a gambler. There are just so many matches happening at the same time, so many opportunities to bet. And then the other important factor for a match fixer is that the players are truly struggling financially. In some cases, when a player wins a tournament on the ITF tour, which is the lower tier of professional tennis, they're only making $2,000 if they win the tournament. And as you know, I mean, that's barely enough to cover their flights between continents, in some cases, or their hotel rooms. So these are players who are really trying their best to break into the top tier of the sport. But getting to that level, paying their way is incredibly complicated.

RASCOE: How much money were players and the people involved in fixing these bets - how much were they making?

SIEFF: The players themselves were, in some cases, making $2,000 or $3,000 to lose a set. So we're not talking about an enormous amount of money. The gamblers were making more than that. The reason the ring became so lucrative was just the sheer number of matches that he was betting on. So he ultimately recruited people to place bets at bookmaker shops, online, mostly across Europe on his behalf. And he knew that if he bet a large sum of money on a very obscure match, betting regulators would catch him, but if you place bets below a certain sum, it doesn't raise alarm. And when you add those wagers, you end up getting into the millions of euros.

RASCOE: And so how did authorities bring down the ring, then?

SIEFF: Match fixing in tennis has become such a big problem that the tennis tour has actually had to form its own investigative body. Those investigators - they got a tip about an Egyptian player who seemed to be exchanging Facebook messages with a match fixer. They confronted him. They seized his telephone. They found a contact for a match fixer in Brussels who was known as Grigory (ph) in the phone. They didn't know who this guy was, but they called the Belgian federal police. And it turned out that the Belgian police had already begun their own investigation into irregular wagers placed from Belgium. And eventually, the Belgian police pinpointed the man who was known as the maestro. His name was Grigor Sargsyan, as I said earlier. And they wiretapped his phones. They surveilled him for more than - for about a year. And in 2018, they arrested him and brought down this enormous match-fixing network.

RASCOE: Wow. So what happened to the players involved in this scheme? Like, what consequences did they face?

SIEFF: One by one, the professional tennis tour suspended them or banned them from the tour. And that means not only that they can't play professional tennis. It means they can't coach. It means they can't even attend professional tennis tournaments. So for someone who's devoted their entire life to a sport, I mean, it's a pretty catastrophic consequence. But Grigor - he was found guilty of money laundering and fraud and being a part of a criminal organization, and he was sentenced to five years in prison.

RASCOE: So what's being done to prevent this from happening again?

SIEFF: The tennis tour - they have this internal integrity unit - will continue working on these cases, continue looking at players who might be fixing their own matches. But I think they're also aware that they're up against a lot, you know, just because of the size of the tour, the number of matches that happen each year. And as I said, the number of wagers - it's an incredibly big and, frankly, growing problem.

RASCOE: That's Kevin Sieff. You can read his two-part investigation called "The Maestro" in The Washington Post. Thank you for being with us.

SIEFF: Thank you.

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