MELBOURNE, Australia – Tennis authorities have denied suppressing evidence of match-fixing or overlooking suspected cases amid reports on the opening day of the Australian Open alleging widespread corruption at the top level of the sport.
In the reports published before the tournament began Monday, the BBC and BuzzFeed News alleged that the Tennis Integrity Unit, the sport's anti-corruption body, had failed to thoroughly investigate a group of 16 players that bookmakers, foreign police and other investigators had warned it about.
The reports said that none of the players — all of whom had been ranked in the top 50 — had faced any sanctions and more than half would be playing at this year's Australian Open. The players weren't identified by name.
At a hastily convened news conference at the tournament on Monday, ATP chairman Chris Kermode rejected the assertion that match-fixing had gone unchecked, saying the TIU remained "constantly vigilant and not complacent" when it comes to tackling corruption.
"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," he said.
The top players, too, said they doubted that match-fixing was happening at the elite level of the sport due to enhanced monitoring systems put in place.
"We have, I think, a sport (that has) evolved and upgraded our programs and authorities to deal with these particular cases," top-ranked Novak Djokovic said. "There's no real proof or evidence yet of any active players (being involved in match-fixing), for that matter. As long as it's like that, it's just speculation."
Djokovic did confirm, though, that members of his team in the mid-2000s were approached to throw a match in Russia.
"Of course, we (rejected) it right away. It didn't even get to me," he said.
The BBC and BuzzFeed allegations were based on files they reported had been leaked "from inside the sport" showing evidence of suspected match-fixing orchestrated by gambling syndicates in Russia and Italy that had been uncovered during an ATP investigation of a 2007 match in Sopot, Poland, involving suspiciously high levels of betting.
According to the reports, the ATP investigation widened to uncover a network of other players suspected of match-fixing, but officials didn't follow up on the cases. Since then, the reports said, the ATP has repeatedly been warned about many of the same players, but hasn't taken any action against them.
On Monday, Kermode said the integrity unit had been formed in 2008 as a joint initiative of the International Tennis Federation, the ATP, the WTA and the Grand Slam Board to combat corruption in the wake of the Sopot investigation. The unit has since sanctioned 18 people for match-fixing, including five players and one official who received lifetime bans.
Many of those punished have been lower-ranked players on the second-tier Challenger tour. Two of the most higher-profile players — former top-50 players Daniele Bracciali and Potito Starace — were initially banned for life before their suspensions were lifted by the Italian Tennis Federation.
Kermode maintained that the TIU investigates every report it receives and takes action only when it has enough evidence to do so.
"You can have lots of information, lots of anecdotal reports, but it's about getting evidence that we can use," he said.
TIU chief Nigel Willerton said "everything that comes into the unit is actioned, it's assessed."
"Corruption is very difficult to detect and to obtain the evidence to prosecute these people," he said. He declined to say whether any players at the Australian Open were being monitored for suspected match fixing.
Marin Cilic, who won the 2014 U.S. Open, said he didn't believe match-fixing is happening at the top of the sport.
"I'm very far away from betting, even though it's pretty popular in Croatia," he said. "There are huge sanctions for that so I don't think anybody would risk that, anybody who loves the sport."