A major sports gambling website suspended betting on Sunday for a mixed doubles match at the Australian Open, raising suspicions of match fixing at one of the world's most prestigious tennis tournaments - a suspicion that the players involved have denied.
Ahead of a match pitting Lara Arruabarrena and David Marrero against Andrea Hlavackova and Lukasz Kubot, large amounts of money poured in on what would normally be an obscure contest, said Marco Blume, head of sportsbook at the website Pinnacle Sports, one of the largest and most influential betting websites in the world.
Nearly all of the money, Blume said, came down for Hlavackova and Kubot, which he said was an indication that the match might be fixed. Hlavackova and Kubot won, 6-0, 6-3. The first set lasted only 20 minutes.
Arruabarrena, the 33rd-ranked doubles player on the women's tour, and Marrero, ranked 32nd among men, rejected any possibility of fixing in an interview after the match. Marrero, who like Arruabarrena is from Spain, cited a knee injury in explaining their performance.
Tennis officials have emphasised that unusual betting patterns alone are not sufficient evidence of match-fixing. It is possible, they have said, that someone close to the players could pass inside information – like knowledge of an injury – to professional gamblers, who would then wager accordingly.
The suspicious gambling activity will most likely cause more alarm in a sport already under intense international scrutiny over possible match fixing. Last week, at the start of the Australian Open, tennis officials were left scrambling when the BBC and BuzzFeed reported that 16 players were repeatedly flagged over suspicions that they had thrown matches but that officials did not discipline them.
The accusations in the report, which centred primarily on matches from several years ago, dominated the first several days of the tournament.
A spokeswoman for the International Tennis Federation, the governing body for tennis's four grand slam events, said the organisation had not been notified of any suspicious activity. She added that such information would first go to the Tennis Integrity Unit, the sport's internal watchdog.
Nigel Willerton, a representative for that group, said in an email that it would not comment about the mixed doubles match.
About 13 hours before the match was set to begin, Pinnacle's traders suspended betting on it, Blume said. He then notified the police in Victoria, the Australian province where the tournament takes place, of possible irregularities.
"We saw a small number of people placing a large amount of money," Blume said.
He added: "In context, these matches are rather small. That means that any aggressive betting behavior is very easy to detect on our side."
Blume said Pinnacle had seen no such betting behaviour for any other match at this Australian Open.
First-round mixed doubles matches typically generate little gambling action, but more than $25,000 had been wagered on Betfair a few hours before the match was scheduled to start. By comparison, three other mixed doubles matches scheduled for similar times on Sunday had generated less than $2,000 combined.
Stefano Berlincioni, a sports gambling expert from Italy who writes for the website Last Word on Sports, highlighted a Marrero match last year that he believed was suspicious. He said on Sunday that his analysis of the wagering activity around the mixed doubles match indicated the match might have been fixed.
Blume, at Pinnacle Sports, said the site opened betting on the match early in the morning, US time, on January 21. He said that by the morning of the 23rd, so much money was pouring in on the Hlavackova/Kubot side that Pinnacle drastically altered its odds to attract betting on the other side. Pinnacle also reduced the maximum amount for a single bet, from $500 to $100.
But, he said, heavy bets kept coming in on the Hlavackova/Kubot side. Just nine minutes after reducing the betting maximum, he said, traders on the Pinnacle floor suspended betting on the match.
"My traders have a very high sensitivity to all incoming betting," Blume said, particularly for a doubles match that would normally attract little action. "Even the slightest disturbance in the betting sets off any alarms on my trading floor."
Because Pinnacle carries such a large betting volume, the website is a good vehicle for noticing such irregularities, Blume said. (The site has been identified by US law enforcement authorities as accepting bets illegally in the United States, a charge Pinnacle strongly denies. The site also operates in many legal markets and is legally registered in the southern Caribbean nation of Curacao.)
Blume said that odds in other betting markets throughout the world also moved in ways suggesting irregularities.
"We run much like a stock exchange in terms of our day to day work," Blume said. "We see almost everything because almost automatically you come to us one way or another."
That function allows Pinnacle to act as a monitor of sports integrity, Blume said.
Still, the enormous amount of money bet legally and illegally on thousands of online sites is ultimately the motivation for match-fixing, experts in the field say. If a bettor knows that a match is fixed and succeeds in putting money on the winning side, enormous payouts result.
with Christopher Clarey
New York Times
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