Authorities ignore evidence of top-ranked players fixing matches, report says

— -- For years, tennis authorities have had evidence of widespread match fixing at major tournaments but have done little about the allegations and have allowed top-ranked players believed to be involved to continue playing without any sanctions. Those are the findings of an investigation by BuzzFeed News and the BBC that was released Sunday as play began at the Australian Open.

Tennis authorities were first warned after a 2008 investigation into the sport found evidence of suspected match fixing at major tournaments including Wimbledon. The match fixing was allegedly orchestrated by gambling syndicates in Russia and Italy and involved prominent players. Since then, according to the report, authorities have been repeatedly warned about a core group of 16 players, all of whom have been ranked in the top 50. None of the players has faced sanctions, and more than half will play in this year's Australian Open.

The report does not name the players whose matches have been tagged for attracting suspicious betting because a direct link between the players and gamblers isn't proven. But according to the report, the players suspected include a U.S. Open champion and doubles winners at Wimbledon, who have repeatedly been reported for losing matches when highly suspicious bets were placed against them. Also on the list is a top-50 player competing in the Australian Open who has been suspected of repeatedly fixing his first set.

The players were targeted in hotel rooms at major tournaments and offered $50,000 or more per fix, according to the report. Gambling syndicates in Russia and Italy, meanwhile, made thousands of dollars placing what the report characterizes as "highly suspicious bets" on scores of matches, including some at Wimbledon and the French Open.

The investigation is based on a cache of leaked documents from the 2008 probe -- the so-called Fixing Files -- and current analysis of betting activity on 26,000 matches, plus interviews with gambling and match-fixing experts, tennis officials and players.

"They could have got rid of a network of players that would have almost completely cleared the sport up," Mark Philips, one of the investigators, told Buzzfeed and the BBC. "We gave them everything tied up with a nice, pink bow on top, and they took no action at all."

An International Tennis Federation spokesman at the Australian Open said the Tennis Integrity Unit plans to issue a statement Monday in reaction to the reports.

In addition to the leaked files from the 2008 probe, BuzzFeed used an algorithm to analyze gambling on tennis matches over the past seven years. That analysis identified 15 players who regularly attracted lopsided betting that shifted the odds, which is considered a warning of possible match fixing. Four of those players lost almost all of the matches that were flagged. Given the original odds on those matches, the chance the players would play so poorly was less than one in 1,000.

Over the past decade, more than 70 players, whose names have shown up on nine leaked lists of suspected fixers, have been flagged by tennis authorities but never sanctioned. Since its inception, the Tennis Integrity United, set up to monitor fair play after the 2008 investigation, has disciplined 13 low-ranking male players and banned five players for fixing.

Nigel Willerton, who leads the unit, told Buzzfeed and the BBC that tennis takes "a zero-tolerance approach to all aspects of betting-related corruption" and said all information received by the group is "analyzed, assessed and investigated by highly experienced former law-enforcement investigators." But Willerton also said prosecuting corruption cases is "notoriously difficult."

The leaked files from the 2008 probe revealed that investigators implicated 28 players in suspected fixing and urged authorities to look into some kind of disciplinary measures. Willerton said authorities took no action, and the evidence was shelved because lawyers said an integrity code introduced after the investigation could not be enforced retroactively. "As a result, no new investigations into any of the players who were mentioned in the 2008 report were opened," Willerton said.

Match fixing was outlawed in versions of the rules before the 2008 probe, and even after the new code took effect, authorities were warned that at least nine players who escaped earlier probes continued to play in suspicious matches, the report said.

The investigation in 2008 was triggered by a match between Nikolay Davydenko, a No. 4-ranked Russian player, and Argentinian player Martin Vassallo Arguello, which ESPN's Outside The Lines detailed. The match attracted millions in bets from an account in Moscow. At the end of the probe, investigators said they found no evidence of any rule-breaking by either player. But files did show that Vassallo Arguello exchanged 82 text messages with the suspected head of an Italian gambling syndicate.

The Italian and Russian gambling syndicates and a third in Sicily were found to have placed bets on 72 matches involving 28 players, which were flagged to authorities.

Just weeks after the evidence was turned over to tennis' governing bodies, Bill Babcock, then head of the International Tennis Federation's Grand Slam committee, said tennis was "healthy" and there was no corruption inside the sport. But the investigation shows that allegations of widespread corruption continue to flood into tennis authorities.

Ben Gunn, the former police chief who led the review that recommended the establishment of the integrity unit, said tennis authorities missed a "perfect opportunity" to clean up the sport. "What they did is a plastic solution, which was not effective then, and it's not effective now," he said.

Richard Ings, former executive vice president for rules and competition at the Association of Tennis Professionals, the sport's governing body, said match fixing is "a regular thing" in the sport. He called the integrity unit's response to the problem "very disappointing."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.