The Buzzfeed/BBC match-fixing expose that continues to distract from the Australian Open talks of 15 unnamed players and a series of matches that because of betting irregularities raised "flags". Decoders have identified the 15 players, who are a motley and anonymous lot save for one startling name. Lleyton Hewitt's presence on the list raises a flag about whether the investigation might have overreached in its scope, methodology and conclusions. Fifteen Hewitt matches were flagged, including at least one in the Davis Cup. To adopt the now common social media exclamation, FFS!
No one would downplay match-fixing, which is such a blight on modern sport. But if one characteristic has defined Hewitt these last two decades, it is a ferocious, almost pathological competitive streak, so obvious to anyone who has watched him play, testified to by opponents, coaches, compatriots, commentators and probably even his wife, children and pets. He shook with it. In no one theatre was that drive more achingly evident than in Davis Cup, for Hewitt a never-ending crusade, his life's work. As of this week, he is Australia's Davis Cup captain.
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Hewitt hits back at match-fixing speculation
Lleyton Hewitt denies he is connected to any wrongdoing in the tennis match-fixing scandal, calling the whole saga a "farce".
The 15 players were identified using an algorithm to analyse gambling. This is not proof that the players had done anything wrong. It simply shows unusual betting on particular matches that shifted the odds.
When Hewitt addressed the media after his straight-set defeat to David Ferrer on Thursday night marked the end of his singles career, he described his name being on the list as "an absolute farce". He added that it was "a joke " and "absurd."
"I think it's a joke to deal with it. You know obviously, yeah, there's no possible way," he said.
I know all the caveats. From Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong forwards, the lesson of this century is that even the most convincing face sometimes turns out to be a facade. And yes, Australians want to think only well of their countrymen, and of their sporting culture, to the point of the occasional turning of a blind eye. Australians cheat to win, we might ruefully concede, but not to lose. True blue is our guarantee. But Hewitt has always had his detractors in this country, too, and has had at best a tempestuous relationship with media, and still I know of no one, friend or foe, who can conceive of him as match-fixer. I'm prepared to say he is not.
So what of those 15 matches, of which he lost 13? A London-based analyst and former tennis trader called Ian Dorward looked into eight of them at random. Some patterns emerged. Often, the match followed a long injury interval, which made it hard for bookmakers to get a bearing on Hewitt's form and fitness. Sometimes, doubtful data was used. One match, against Poland's Jerzy Janowicz, was interrupted by rain and had to be resumed the next day, causing all to reassess. But the most common theme was that one bookmaker had opened with a price on Hewitt significantly different to the others, and as the money flowed and the match progressed had realised the mistake and hastily adjusted the odds, causing the investigators' algorithm to raise a flag. The same syndrome can be observed every weekday on a racecourse somewhere.
Dorward concludes: "From the matches that I have looked at, there is absolutely no suggestion whatsoever that Lleyton Hewitt has been involved in fixing matches and to simply post his name among a list of players suspected of fixing without performing any further analysis or providing context is simply irresponsible." I know nothing about Dorward. A cursory scan of his work suggests he is a tennis fan, but not an apologist for the game.
On Wednesday evening, Novak Djokovic was questioned at length about a match he lost to France's Fabrice Santoro, 36 rungs below him in the rankings, in Paris in 2007. Exasperated, Djokovic asked if every instance of a top player losing to a player with an inferior ranking would be treated as suspicious. In the current hypersensitive climate, the answer is probably yes. But Djokovic's point was that results do not always conform to rankings or form. It is what makes sport the vibrant past-time it is. One detail that Dorward does not remark upon is that two of Hewitt's losses, including in the Davis Cup, were to Stan Wawrinka, who although lesser-ranked at the time was on the way to proving himself a worthy peer. Sport is a dynamic business.
The rest of the 15 names are, with due respect, quite lowly-ranked players, who presumably lost flagged matches to even more lowly-ranked opponents. Typically, the form and prospects of lower-ranked players are harder to track, which you imagine makes their milieu more fertile territory for corrupting influences. No one is saying for a moment that match-fixing does not happen, here and everywhere else, and no one should think that the stories that continue to emerge are all crocks and simply wish them away. But if the catalogue of suspicious matches is to have credibility, so must the identity of the suspects.