Blemish, Anyone? Bets Show Dark Side Of Tennis Tennis may seem rather dainty. But, in fact, the sport has always had a dark underside, populated by gamblers and match fixers. Commentator Frank Deford says he's not reassured by a ruling that cleared a top player of throwing a match.
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Blemish, Anyone? Bets Show Dark Side Of Tennis

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Blemish, Anyone? Bets Show Dark Side Of Tennis

Blemish, Anyone? Bets Show Dark Side Of Tennis

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Your hard-earned money might rapidly go down the drain if you should bet on a game that has been fixed. Our sports commentator Frank Deford has been watching his own wallet, and he thinks a certain racket sport is a racket.

FRANK DEFORD: 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 where 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 "tennis, anyone?" It's revealing that that denigrating expression was, in fact, almost surely first uttered on Broadway by a young actor named Humphrey Bogart, yes, who, of course, became Bogie, the quintessential hard-boiled egg. Say it like the latter Bogart, "tennis, anyone," and you get the more accurate depiction of reality. But in fact, tennis has always had a dark underside.

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 horseracing 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. Convenient, huh?

Last year, Betfair, by far the largest sports Internet wagering exchange, took the extreme step of voiding all bets on a match that Nikolay Davydenko, the world number four, 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 the tournament locker room, even at Wimbledon, murder in the cathedral.

Imagine if Vegas voided all bets on, say, 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 whole 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.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Commentator Frank Deford serves each Wednesday, from the baseline at member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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