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"I'm Shocked . . . Shocked . . . " - "Distorted" Form In Sports - Part I...By Nelson Lardner

Hard on the heels of the Prokom Open tennis stinkfest in Poland this summer, when heavy money moved against the then-world's-#4 Nikolay Davydenko (check spelling) in a minor match in which Davydenko was originally established as a heavy favorite - a match Davydenko failed to finish, due to injury -- a mainstream publication has taken tennis' situation by the horns.

In this week's Sports Illustrated, S. L. Price graced the front of the book with a neat, concise report ( highlighting shady, casual propositions previously made to multiple tennis professionals, many of whom participated in this year's U. S. Open. A careful reading of Price's story reveals that no player quoted stated that any of the reported "offers" involved current activities at Flushing Meadows, N. Y. But the clouds linger.

In a superior effort to provide some perspective regrettably absent from most publications whose primary focus lay outside the gambling realm, Price notes that in the mother-country - Jolly Olde England - tennis handle is third (only horse racing and soccer attract more business) at Betfair. Given that tennis - like the largely-discredited "sport" of boxing - is (putting doubles aside) contested mano-a-mano, and in such one-on-one situations, hot injury news is exponentially more powerful than in major team sports. Throw in a whiff or two of shady operatives making the rounds, striking up casual conversations along the lines of "Would you like to make some money?" - easily the most loaded question in modern sports - and you have the potential for some serious trouble erupting in River City.

It's all well and good that multiple players reported to Price that they'd been approached with offers - some, repeatedly - but had no trouble turning them down.

Left unsaid is what everyone's wringing their hands over - the propositions players received which might have actually been accepted.

A column published this week by one of (New York) Newsday's sports columnists (,0,3948384.column) took on the broad issue, incorporating much of the data featured in Price's SI piece, and tossing in a couple of additional examples. But the headline, "ATP should admit gambling is a concern in tennis" was ill-chosen, as the Association of Tennis Professionals had weeks ago done precisely that, engaging the security firm of SafirRosetti (connected with Rudy Giuliani) to patrol the U. S. Open shortly after the saturation coverage of the circumstances surrounding the odd Polish Davydenko match.

It's been pointed out here and elsewhere that tennis has had a chronic image problem for many years, largely based on certain economic quirks of the professional game. It's no secret that in many a secondary tournament, individual big-name stars show up with appearance-fee checks already securely ensconced in their tight white shorts. Some of these folks have been known to inexplicably come up short in an early match against an historically-inferior opponent. This kind of thing transpires in second-shelf tournaments leading directly into Grand Slam majors more often than random-result-distributions based on individual match odds might suggest. Some such situations might well be attributable to style vagaries inherent in individual matchups - but don't personally believe that all of them can/should be explained away quite so glibly.

I'm all for reliable, responsibly-operated betting exchanges. They frequently offer superlative value to the speculator, providing decent scope for worthwhile maneuvering while also assuring the fixed-odds reliability not present in pari-mutuel wagering. But their practical flaw virtually mirrors the rationale behind the State of New York's embracing the eventual implementation of pari-mutuels at the direct expense of the established conglomeration of bookmakers which wrote the horse business at the major tracks in the Empire State through the 1930's. It was too easy for large books who had absorbed potentially self-abusive positions on certain horses to consider looking to discourage the jockeys aboard said horses from performing at their optimum efficiency.

I'm fairly certain we've not heard the last of the tennis story. Given the currency of the Open, would bet a nickel that at least one Gotham City outlet will continue to give this "new" wrinkle (to many!) news "legs". Pending further factfinding forays, there also remain relevant cross-sport parallels to be drawn between tennis and racing exchange action, and we'll look to do a measure of exactly that, in conjunction . . . meanwhile, be careful out there.


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