Match-fixing charge surfaces ahead of Australian Open

Match-fixing in tennis is back on the radar, less than two weeks before the Australian Open.

Victoria state police on Thursday charged an 18-year-old man following an investigation by detectives from the Sporting Integrity Intelligence Unit into allegations of match-fixing at a lower-tier tournament in Traralgon, 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Melbourne, in October.

Police did not disclose the name or other details of the man, but said he will appear at the Latrobe Valley Magistrates' Court on March 2 charged with engaging in conduct that corrupts a betting outcome.

Victoria Police assistant commissioner Neil Paterson said the integrity of sport remained an issue for law enforcement because "match-fixing is one of the fastest growing organized crime types across the world."

Rafael Nadal, a 14-time major champion, was told of the latest allegation to potentially tarnish the sport after winning a match at the Brisbane International.

"The most important thing is fight against these kind of things," Nadal said, adding that the fact charges were laid meant "we are doing the right job."

The start of last year's Australian Open was overshadowed by media reports that tennis authorities had failed to properly investigate suspicion of match-fixing involving up to 16 players who had been ranked in the top 50 going back over a decade.

The allegations, released by BBC and Buzzfeed News, triggered wide speculation but no significant new cases. It forced the sport's four governing bodies — the ITF, ATP, WTA and Grand Slam Board — to create an independent review panel to investigate corruption and the effectiveness of anti-corruption practices.

The panel's interim review is expected to be released next month.

Nadal said he doesn't believe there's a significant problem at the top of the game, but agreed it was "obviously negative" for the allegations in Australia to hit the headlines before the season's first Grand Slam tournament.

"I have been a lot of years on tour and happen almost every year," he said. "You get tired about this kind of stuff."

Nadal said he couldn't speculate on what was happening in the lower-tier challenger and futures events, but after spending more than a dozen years at the top level he could speak confidently about the elite level.

"On the professional ATP World Tour, I can talk," he said. "I don't know if this happened here, but for sure is not happening very often. If it happened, it has been just very few times, because I see every match people fight, people don't want to lose.

"I don't see matches that people give up or throw the match."

Spanish authorities last month detained 34 people, including six tennis players, involved in a tennis match-fixing network after a police taskforce found evidence of match-fixing attempts in 17 men's tournaments in several lower-tier tournaments in Spain and Portugal.

The tennis players were not identified, but authorities said they were ranked between 800 and 1,200 in the world. The investigation began after a tip given by a player to the Tennis Integrity Unit, the sport's anti-corruption body.

Nadal cited that police operation in his native Spain as evidence that corruption was being seriously tackled.

"I think that the sport is doing the right things to fight against that," he said. "And, you know, all the people that are not doing the things right, now they are in trouble."

In an emailed statement, the Tennis Integrity Unit said it worked closely with police in Australia to support the investigation in Victoria state.

"Investigation and prosecution of corruption allegations by law enforcement agencies takes precedence over tennis disciplinary action," the TIU said. "Once any criminal proceedings have been concluded, the TIU will continue to progress investigations under the Tennis Anti-Corruption Program."

Tennis Australia declined to comment directly on the Victoria police investigation, but said it would "continue to support the efforts of law-enforcement authorities to help remove corruption from tennis."

Ann West, Tennis Australia's head of integrity and compliance, said staff from the sport's integrity unit had been bolstered significantly in the last six months and worked closely with police.

"We have a zero tolerance ... to match-fixing or anything to do with illegal betting," West said in a telephone interview.

She said the integrity unit staff focused on educating players ranging from 12 years old to professionals, and the coaches, parents, administrators and support staff who work with them.

"We're out there now and we have feet on the ground — something we didn't have previously," West said. "It's early days. We know that we're not going to get everybody in the first instance, but we're going to try our hardest. It's basically education and gathering of intelligence and more importantly face-to-face interaction."

She didn't think match-fixing was widespread in tennis in Australia.

"To be quite frank, it could be anywhere," West said. "Normally, with the top-level players, there doesn't seem to be anything (untoward). They are very proactive in promoting the fact they don't like corruption within their sport — they're leaders in that space."