By Ryan Chatelain
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Tennis has suddenly found itself in the grand slam of all controversies, and its athletes — both big name and obscure — are fighting for their reputations.
It seems like we’ve been here before.
Oh, wait, we have. It was about 11 years ago. But it wasn’t tennis then; it was baseball. And match-fixing wasn’t the sin du jour; it was steroids.
A BBC/BuzzFeed News investigation found “evidence of widespread suspected match-fixing at the top level of world tennis.” How widespread? Sixteen players who were ranked in the top 50 over the past decade — some who are still playing — are suspected, but no names have been leaked.
The fallout so far? A lot of bristly athletes answering a lot of pointed questions.
Roger Federer is among those calling for the suspects to be outed.
“I would love to hear names,” Federer said after an Australian Open victory last week. “Then at least it’s concrete stuff, and you can actually debate about it.”
But the truth is the integrity of tennis is now shot for some time, and releasing some names won’t do anything to re-cork the trust that has been lost. Those players not on the list wouldn’t necessarily be vindicated. Maybe they hadn’t been approached with their handsome payday yet? Maybe their misdeeds simply went undetected?
It might not be fair, but practically everyone in the sport is now under suspicion — just like every Major League Baseball player who could hit a ball over a fence with some regularity in the late ’90s or early 2000s was a suspected juicer in someone’s eyes.
Take Rafael Nadal, for instance. When the world’s No. 5-ranked player lost to 49th-ranked Fernando Verdasco in the first round of the Australian Open on Jan. 19 — a day after the BBC/BuzzFeed report broke — you’d better believe some contemplated whether he was capable of throwing the match.
Think of Nadal as tennis’ version of Brady Anderson, the former Baltimore Oriole who, in 1996 at age 32, exploded for 50 homers, shattering his previous best of 21. Many have wondered aloud if he discovered PEDs, although no evidence has ever turned up to support that.
Take Novak Djokovic. Last week, he was blasting a report in an Italian newspaper that he “wanted to lose” a 2007 match at the Paris Masters.
“You can pick any match that you like that the top player lost and just create a story out of it,” he said.
Consider him his sport’s version of Mike Piazza, baseball’s best-ever hitting catcher, who had to wait through four Hall of Fame votes before receiving his call to Cooperstown. Why the wait? Largely because some writers anecdotally linked Piazza to steroids.
Then there’s the mixed doubles team of Lara Arruabarrena and David Marrero. Betting on their Australian Open match Sunday was suspended due to lopsided activity in favor of their opponents, Andrea Hlavackova and Lukasz Kubot, who went on to win.
Marrero blamed a knee injury for the loss. That could be a legitimate excuse. Or it could be his version of Roger Clemens’ “I thought it was vitamin B12” or Ryan Braun’s “a lab worker tampered with my urine sample” defenses.
Maybe Nadal, Djokovic, Arruabarren and Marrero are all innocent bystanders in this ugly thing. Or maybe they’re all culpable. We just don’t know. The only thing that is certain is this match-fixing scandal has cast a cloud of doubt over everyone who plays the sport.
And what’s even more troubling for tennis’ reputation than what baseball faced is that sniffing out its con artists is tougher to do. At least in baseball, we knew the guys belting 60 homers were probably cheats, and when the power numbers plummeted, we could assume the vast majority of the offenders had cleaned up their acts. But how do you tell the difference between a tennis player who takes a dive for the all-holy dollar and one who simply had an off day?
“The Tennis Integrity Unit and tennis authorities absolutely reject any suggestion that evidence of match-fixing has been suppressed for any reason or isn’t being thoroughly investigated,” ATP chairman Chris Kermode said last week.
That sounds an awful lot like: “Did we have a major problem? No.”
Do you remember who said that?
It was then-baseball commissioner Bug Selig at a Capitol Hill hearing on steroid allegations in March 2005.
And we all know how that turned out.