A Tennis Gambler Looks for a Fix
By HANNAH KARP
Four months ago in a hotel room overlooking the landscaped gardens of the luxurious Dusit Thani hotel in Pattaya City, Thailand, Dmitry Avilov sat deep in thought for several hours, he recalls, nervously composing a message in Russian to Ekaterina Bychkova, a tennis player now ranked No. 169 on the WTA Tour.
Mr. Avilov, 25, who says he makes a modest living betting almost exclusively on women's tennis, had decided, for the first time, he says, to approach a player about fixing a match.
While Ms. Bychkova refused the overture and no money ever changed hands, Mr. Avilov's story highlights a growing concern among some coaches, officials and corruption experts: that lower-ranked tennis players are easy targets, especially with the rise of social-networking sites that make it simpler for strangers to contact them.
In the U.S., tennis bets can only legally be made in person at Nevada sports books. While online betting is legal in many countries outside the U.S., including Russia, match fixing is prohibited almost everywhere. In Russia, however, the penalties are relatively light. Individual violators are subject to arrest and to a fine of up to 200,000 rubles (about $6,000).
"I feel like I can just do whatever I want," says Mr. Avilov, a father of two who lives in a one-bedroom flat in western Russia. "Professional tennis doesn't want to deal with fixes, period."
Larry Scott, chief executive of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, the chief women's international professional tennis circuit, strongly disagrees with Mr. Avilov's statement. He said there is "no indication" that a corruption issue exists in women's tennis, but that the tour is monitoring the situation and has a zero tolerance policy for violators. Mr. Scott says the WTA Tour has improved its player education program, prohibits betting at its tournament venues and closely examines matches that players take part in over and above those necessary for achieving ranking points.
In 2007, Italy's Alessio Di Mauro became the first professional tennis player to be sanctioned for gambling. He was barred from the ATP World Tour for nine months for betting on other players' matches. Also in 2008, Nikolay Davydenko, currently ranked No. 11, was cleared after a year-long investigation into a match in Poland on which 11 people wagered a total of at least $7 million that he would lose. Mr. Di Mauro admitted betting on other people's matches. Mr. Davydenko has denied any wrongdoing.
In 2008, the sport's four governing bodies took steps to address concerns raised by these incidents. The WTA Tour, the men's ATP World Tour, the International Tennis Federation and the Grand Slam Committee commissioned a report on the issue of gambling that resulted in a jointly funded "Tennis Integrity Unit" and an anti-corruption code that requires players to report overtures by gamblers.
For the 2008 report, Jeff Rees, a former London police detective with experience in sports corruption, was given access to the betting records for several dozen matches where officials from *******, a London-based online betting exchange that cooperates with sports officials, had seen unusual or suspicious activity. Mr. Rees, who now heads the Tennis Integrity Unit, said he found strong indications of corruption in 27 cases -- mostly ones where bettors had repeatedly made successful bets against highly favored players.
Tennis accounts for less than 2% of the total amount wagered on sports in Nevada casinos each year, according to Las Vegas Sports Consultants, but is one of the most popular betting sports internationally. Experts say the game's individual nature makes it easy for a player, acting alone, to manipulate the outcome.
Many WTA Tour players are teenagers who don't earn enough to pay for proper training or a professional coach. Nick Bollettieri, the founder of a Florida tennis academy and a coach to many top players over the years, says none of the clients he's mentored have told him they'd been asked to fix a match. But he says he suspects such offers are made more often to lower-ranked players who are "having a tough time making it financially."
Mr. Avilov, a math whiz and former economics student with a penchant for fantasy computer games, says he came of age when former Russian Federation president Boris Yeltsin promoted the sport and many of his peers took up the game in the wake of Anna Kournikova's success. He created a program that predicted tennis results based on a player's style, current form and record on each surface. After a brief stint freelancing for *******'s Russian marketing department and a failed attempt to create his own betting exchange, Mr. Avilov says he focused on posting his tennis picks online. In 2006 he says he hooked his first investor, who, as a test, offered to pay him $15,000 if he could turn $50,000 into $100,000. Mr. Avilov says he did so in five months.
Two bettors said they have paid Mr. Avilov to place tennis bets for them and have been pleased with the returns, although they didn't offer specifics or any proof of payment. Last month, one investor -- an American from Houston -- flew in to meet Mr. Avilov at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, S.C. The investor said he'd come to pay for Mr. Avilov's hotel room and handed him $3,000 in cash. Mr. Avilov placed online bets for the investor before heading to the tournament each morning. While placing online bets is illegal under U.S. law, the authorities rarely prosecute individual bettors.
Gambler Dmitry Avilov visits a bookmakers bureau in Ufa, Russia, in March. Mr. Avilov says he stopped betting on men's tennis in 2007 when he realized he might have a bigger edge over bookmakers on the women's side. When he started attending non-televised tournaments, he found it hard to tell much from watching the men. At a tournament he attended in Prague, he says, even "weak" players like Peter Wessels, then ranked No. 530, looked good to him. He says he found it easier to size up the weaknesses of WTA Tour players, especially those ranked between Nos. 20 and 100. "In the ATP almost everyone can serve, move and return. But there are lots of girls who can't serve, or can't move -- and I always like to bet on good players against bad ones."
To gather intelligence, Mr. Avilov travels to three to six small tournaments a year to watch lower-ranked players, chat up members of their entourages and sleuth into their personal lives. "Just knowing a player better helps," he says.
Mr. Avilov says he first began to consider fixing a match during a tournament in Budapest last year. While staying at the players' hotel, he recognized Anna Lapushchenkova, a low-ranked Russian player, eating breakfast with another player. While he'd never contacted or spoken to Ms. Lapushchenkova -- and hasn't since -- he says he tried to work up the nerve to ask her if she would take money to throw a match. "I would have shared the money with her," he says. He didn't approach her and never made the offer. Ms. Lapushchenkova did not return calls seeking comment.
This winter, Mr. Avilov discovered Ms. Bychkova, another Russian player coached by her mother, kept a diary on Livejournal.com. He thought she might be interested in making some extra money -- in one blog entry she waxed poetic about a Louis Vuitton purse. In February, after registering for the site, he sent her a match-fixing proposal through a private message.
Both Mr. Avilov and Ms. Bychkova say Ms. Bychkova declined the proposal. She says she didn't tell anyone, including tennis officials, because she thought it would "sound really funny" to report someone she'd never met who contacted her through her blog. "I don't want to fix matches and will never do it," says Ms. Bychkova.
Mr. Avilov says he "definitely" intends to contact other players through online social-networking sites and if the opportunity presents itself, to ask them to fix matches. "My job is to understand these girls and to think like them," he says.