Tennis' fight against match-fixing remains an uphill battle

— -- MELBOURNE, Australia -- Tennis authorities have fortified their anti-corruption efforts in the 12 months since the 2016 Australian Open was rocked on opening day. A BBC and BuzzFeed report alleged that tennis authorities had hid or willfully ignored pursuing match-fixing suspicions against people within the sport, including at least one Grand Slam title winner.

The names and conclusive proof about many of the report's charges have never been forthcoming, though tennis has undergone a lot of organizational changes and soul-searching since. But the general assertion that gambling-related corruption has wormed its way into the sport was underscored yet again just 11 days ago, when reigning Australian Open boys champion Oliver Anderson, a promising 18-year-old from Brisbane, was charged by Victoria police with attempting to fix a Traralgon Challenger match last October. It made him the sixth tennis player to be charged or disciplined this year alone.

Anderson's arrest highlighted the paradox that's been created within the sport as this year's Open swung into action without incident Monday: The more tennis succeeds at rooting out possible corruption, the more fresh embarrassment the sport endures. And the bigger -- not smaller -- the enormous policing job can look.

"There have been disappointments; there's no doubt about it," Ann West, Tennis Australia's head of integrity and compliance, said Monday at Rod Laver Arena. "You would be naive to say there haven't been."

Rafael Nadal, who was playing in the season-opening Brisbane International when Anderson was arrested, agreed.

"[It's] obviously negative; always in the first month of the season this starts to happen," Nadal said. "You get tired about this kind of stuff."

Last month, 34 people in Nadal's home country of Spain were arrested and charged with running an alleged match-fixing ring at 17 Futures and Challenger tournaments, the two lowest professional rungs of the sport.

Fighting the incentive to cheat

The temptation to cheat at those tournaments is often considered greater because of precipitously lower prize money. (Payouts are as low as $98 for losers of a first-round Futures match; the total prize money at the Challenger event Anderson played was $50,000 -- or ashtray money for some top pros.)

But no one in tennis is comfortable trusting that fixes couldn't happen at the highest levels of the sport as well. The Tennis Integrity Unit, the sport's internal watchdog group, was established back in 2008 to police such matters. Offering more prize money in the early rounds of tournaments at all levels is now being championed as one of many possible preventive measures. A player who loses in the first round of the men's or women's singles at this 2017 Australian Open will take home $50,000, up from $38,500 in 2016.

"I think [the anti-corruption effort] is definitely more of a topic," Australian-born 2011 US Open champion Samantha Stosur said Sunday. "Everyone's aware of what's been going on. It's not a great thing for our sport, or any sport. We certainly don't want to be going down that road of that continually happening, making a bad name for everything. I think it's something that you need to be really strong about, and stamp out quickly."

That's easier said than done in tennis for myriad reasons, starting with the enormity of the legal and illegal global gambling industry, the black ops nature of some computerized betting and impossible-to-trace internet communications, and windfalls of easy money that could be had by manipulating matches.

There's also the live wagering that even reputable bookmakers offer on results within a match such as who wins or loses a particular set.

The BBC/BuzzFeed report noted that Victoria Police had questioned Australian tennis figures about matches that could be suspicious in the main draw of 2016 Australian Open. Days later, published reports pinpointed that one of them was a mixed-doubles match that had an unusual betting pattern and began with a 6-0 first set.

The integrity unit found no evidence of wrongdoing. But around the same time last January, The New York Times published a fascinating story ?about a self-described disenchanted bettor who anonymously contacted a Times reporter online about the shadowy world of match-fixing. Among other things, the person purported to provide the reporter with a "menu" of costs for various fixes -- about $25,000 to throw a single set on the ATP and WTA Tours; around $100K to tank the entire match.

A call to action

Officials from some of tennis' numerous independent governing bodies -- the International Tennis Federation, the ATP World Tour, the WTA and the four Grand Slam tournaments -- were called on the carpet a few weeks after the 2016 Australian Open by the British House of Commons during some February committee hearings on tennis' governance issues. Once there, Nigel Willerton, director of the TIU, told the lawmakers he'd recommend that tennis anti-corruption program be more independent from the sport's governing bodies going forward.

He got his wish.

Another committee -- this one called the Independent Review Panel?-- was set up "to test all of the BBC/BuzzFeed claims," a TIU spokesman said Monday in an email response.

The IRP panel is due to publish an interim report sometimes this spring, with a final report to follow later this year. Tennis has already agreed to accept, fund and implement the recommendations.

The TIU's full-time operational staff has also been increased from five to 10 members. Three of the new hires are investigators, and another is a data analyst.

The 2017 TIU annual budget has increased from $2.4 million in 2016 to $3.23 million this year -- still too low, some critics contend, noting the ATP's operating budget alone is more than $100 million.

There's been a stronger emphasis on mandatory player education as well. (There's even an app that was created for that.) Players and their teams are told they're required to report any approaches to fix matches. There is also a confidential TIU email service for players to report concerns that is monitored by TIU officers 24/7.

Players who commit transgressions or fail to report illicit overtures face fines that can top out at $250,000 and/or lifetime suspensions. All pro players and officials have to agree to abide by the requirements of the Tennis Anti-Corruption Program, which requires all "Covered Persons" to cooperate with TIU investigations and provide cell phones, laptops, tablets, banking and finance records for scrutiny and forensic analysis, if asked.

One obvious handicap: The TIU has no subpoena power to compel the people to comply.

But if players refuse to cooperate, they can (and have) been charged with a corruption offense and sanctioned.

The TIU has also doubled down on getting more information via stronger partnerships with bookmakers who, after all, have a shared interest in stamping out corrupt results.

The TIU's most recent annual review? reported that betting alerts rose to 292 in 2016, up from just 14 alerts in 2012, 46 in 2013, 91 in 2014, then 246 in 2015. Willerton conceded to British lawmakers that it was "a "huge leap" and "far too many as far as tennis is concerned," but contended policing efforts plus opening up Futures tournaments to wagering in 2014-15 accounted for some of the spike. That said, the 2016 total of 292 alerts still comprised just .2 percent of the 114,126 matches played.

Even Roger Federer -- a sometime critic of the TIU -- contended Saturday that he now believes tennis is determined to do a "good job."

The challenge to success

Embarrassments still happen. It was belatedly discovered that a match official who was suspended for emailing insider information on player injuries to gambling contacts and betting online on matches himself was nonetheless not stopped from working the 2016 US Open. Why? Red-faced officials later explained he had obtained his credential before his ban was announced.

That same US Open also became the second known Slam of 2016 to have a match flagged for betting irregularities when 15th-seeded Timea Bacsinszky's eventual 6-1, 6-1 win over oft-injured Vitalia Diatchenko of Russia had a surge in betting that was about 10 times greater than expected for their otherwise unremarkable pairing.

Diatchenko, who missed numerous tournaments and was ranked 667th in the world, turned in an error-strewn effort. But she denied any wrongdoing. And none was proven.

Even the most gung-ho corruption fighters will concede a betting alert alone is not conclusive proof of cheating.

"Not all suspicions betting patterns amount to anything," says Pete Peterson, a former police officer in Australia's Northwest Territories who also works for Tennis Australia's integrity unit. "That intelligence is just to let us know this has come up. But it could if the odds on the match were badly set, or any range of other factors."

It doesn't help that the nature of tennis itself makes the sport particularly susceptible to fixing. Who can conclusively say why a serve sails just outside the box or someone blasts groundstrokes just wide of the lines again and again?

Several players disciplined in past year were instead caught by tracking the personal online betting accounts they maintained.

When you group all the challenges together, you can understand why Chris Eaton, executive director for sport integrity at the International Center for Sport Security, told the Times last year that he believes individual sports do not have the resources or clout to solve what he characterized as a growing global problem. Eaton contended only governments do.

"To keep all these small and finger-in-the-dike type integrity units in individual sports is at best only putting off the deluge," Eaton said. "Our most serious concern, based on investigations and reliable inside sources, is that some of the biggest sports betting operations globally are at worst controlled by criminal interests or, at best, heavily infiltrated by criminal organizations.

"This is not a space for sports administrators to have any serious effect."

But a full year removed from last year's bombshell report on the eve of the Australian Open and now, just 10 days past young Anderson's arrest, no one inside tennis wants to concede the point as starkly as Eaton did.

In sports, the mantra is never give up. You always try, try, try, try, try.