Tennis Faces 'Elephant in the Room'

Even as the world's top tennis players battle it out this weekend at the U.S. Open, reporters are asking about what a top official calls "the elephant in the room" -- a gambling scandal that has brought scrutiny upon one of the sport's stars.

"I'm pleased you brought the subject of gambling up," Etienne de Villiers, executive chairman of the international tennis body ATP, told reporters Friday at the U.S. Open. "That was the elephant in the room. So the elephant has finally come out."

The specter of gambling now haunts not only sharp-elbowed NBA -- which is coping with a scandal involving a referee alleged to have betted on games he officiated -- but also the gentlemanly sport of tennis.

Last month, Betfair, the world's largest Internet wagering company, took the unprecedented step of voiding all bets on a match involving Nicolay Davydenko, ranked No. 4 by the ATP, because of what it called "unusual ... betting patterns."

The ATP has launched an investigation, and the U.S. Tennis Association has publicized its heightened vigilance at the U.S. Open and its "zero-tolerance policy" on gambling.

"We are way ahead of most governing bodies in terms of this issue," de Villiers said Friday, according to a transcript of the session provided by the USTA. "We saw this coming. We're not going to be ostriches either. We're never going to be complacent."

The scandal has been a "major subtext" all week at the U.S. Open, according to Greg Garber, a senior writer for ESPN.com. Even so, before de Villiers' comments brought a new flash point to the talk, Garber sensed it fading somewhat as more conventional on-court storylines, such as an up-and-coming group of young American players, heated up.

"Invariably, tennis will win out," Garber said.

The controversy began when Betfair saw lopsided wagering at 10 times the expected volume on an Aug. 2 match in Poland between Russia's Davydenko and Argentina's Martin Vassallo Arguello, then ATP's No. 87 player.

Shortly before the match, "several large bets went on Arguello," unusual for an underdog in a second-round match at a relatively obscure tournament, Betfair told ABC News in a statement. And even though Davydenko won the first set 6-2, "even more money went on Arguello."

"If you are betting on a match to win money," Betfair's statement said, "this would appear to be the quickest way to go bankrupt."

Arguello won the second set, during which Davydenko called the trainer. Davydenko retired in the third set, citing an injury.

Betfair smelled a rat, voided all bets and notified the ATP.

Davydenko has already won two matches at the U.S. Open, where he reportedly denied involvement with gamblers.

But since the initial scandal erupted, additional media allegations have arisen.

American "Paul Goldstein, on the second day of the tournament, told me that he was approached by someone attempting to fix the match in the last two years," ESPN.com's Garber said, adding that Goldstein said he refused the offer.

A French publication Thursday anonymously quoted two alleged top players who reportedly said they had witnessed thrown matches.

Tennis.com, in consultation with the Web site Onthepunt.com, published a list of several other matches from the past few years that allegedly raised suspicion among bookmakers.

In earlier comments, de Villiers highlighted why tennis may face an added vulnerability. Unlike with a team sport, he noted, a single corrupt player could control a whole match.

"All professional sport needs a level playing field in order to maintain its appeal and integrity," de Villiers said. "This is especially true for tennis which is a one-on-one gladiatorial contest."

Despite the swirl of scandal, tennis' top officials say they are ahead of the curve in policing their sport, setting up an anti-corruption program in 2003 that toughened penalties, raising the possibility of lifetime bans.

ATP spokesman Kris Dent said an unspecified number of incidents have been investigated under the policy, and implied serious allegations have not panned out.

"No player has been sanctioned under the anti-corruption program," Dent said. "We don't think we have a corruption problem in the sport."

As the online betting industry became more popular, the ATP also has enlisted the online betting companies to flag them on possible betting irregularities, as Betfair did on the Davydenko-Arguello match.

For the current investigation, the ATP also has called upon the expertise of the British Horseracing Authority, and is using independent investigators.

But some have questioned why investigators evidently won't be questioning Davydenko until after the China Open, which ends Sept. 16.

"He will be interviewed when the investigative body feels it is the right time to investigate," de Villiers said Friday. "These are very experienced investigators who feel they need to have as much information as they need before they go and interview somebody."

The organization that runs the U.S. Open also claims it has boosted its vigilance against the threat of gambling.

Specifically, the USTA has e-mailed details of its "zero-tolerance policy" to players and officials, highlighted the policy at mandatory meetings with players, officials and others, and posted signs about the policy in key locations. The USTA also has hired SafirRosetti, the corporate security firm that includes Howard Safir, a former New York City Police commissioner, to patrol the U.S. Open grounds and watch for problems.

"Nothing could be worse for a professional sport than to be caught up in a gambling scandal," said Chris Widmaier, a spokesman for the USTA. "This does go to the integrity of the game. We take it very seriously, and we will continue to do that. But I'd like to reiterate that we don't think it's a problem.

"I believe in the integrity of the players," he added. "I'll tell you what: I think that anybody who makes it into the manger of the U.S. Open is in it to win it."

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