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You’d Have To Be Pretty Dumb To Fix A Tennis Match This Week

If suspicions that a mixed-doubles match was fixed at the Australian Open on Sunday prove true, it could go down in the gambling annals as the dumbest fix in sports history. Many of the telltale signs of match-fixing are indeed present; to a large degree, however, the stupidity of fixing a match now is just as strong a reason to doubt it happened.

Pinnacle Sports suspended betting before a mixed-doubles match in which Andrea Hlavackova and Lukasz Kubot faced the Spanish pair of Lara Arruabarrena and David Marrero. Even though it looked on paper like a close matchup, with all four players experienced and highly ranked in doubles, most bettors backed Hlavackova and Kubot, even after the books shifted the odds to promise a bigger payout if Arruabarrena and Marrero won. And volume was heavy for mixed doubles, which many players treat more like an exhibition than like a meaningful match.

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After Hlavackova and Kubot won easily, 6-0, 6-3, all four players were questioned by journalists — a rarity in mixed doubles, especially in the first round. Kubot, facing more reporters than he did after winning the 2014 Australian Open men’s doubles title, said Arruabarrena and Marrero “were trying 100 percent.” The Spanish pair also dismissed the idea that they fixed the match. The New York Times put its story about the match on its home page Sunday, sent out a news alert and ran the print version on the front page Monday.

The prominence given to the story by the Times is prima facie evidence for why this would be such a dumb fix. Since BuzzFeed News and the BBC published an investigation a week ago into accusations that tennis authorities aren’t doing enough to stamp out corruption in the sport, journalists have been focused on the possibility of match-fixing — and getting a piece of the story — like never before.

Meanwhile, pressure is on tennis authorities to show they are taking the problem seriously, making it a bad time to try to slip something past them. Hlavackova and Kubot said at their post-match news conference that they’d already been contacted by the Tennis Integrity Unit, a joint initiative of tennis governing bodies that is tasked with fighting corruption in the sport.

Grand Slam tournaments in particular have more officials on site than other events and far more journalists — an order of magnitude more than some of the tennis tour’s smallest stops. And for reporters at Slams, it’s easy to watch matches — tune your television to any court while the match is in progress, or access video of many matches after the fact. Doubles matches at other events usually aren’t televised at all. The Times story included a detailed account of the match that would be difficult to produce if a reporter were chasing reports of suspected fixing at a smaller tournament — such as many of the matches mentioned in the BuzzFeed-BBC report.

Grand Slams also are more lucrative than other events. Although mixed doubles is worth less in prize money than men’s or women’s doubles — and doesn’t earn players ranking points — a win would have netted Arruabarrena and Marrero 2,250 Australian dollars ($1,570 U.S.) more each than their loss did. And they’d have had the chance to win 78,500 Australian dollars each if they went on to win the title. That’s not bad for doubles, where purses generally are far smaller than in singles.

By losing, Arruabarrena and Marrero also miss chances to compete together and impress their national tennis federation. That matters because another mixed-doubles tournament is coming up this summer, one that should be easier to win yet matters far more than an exhibition. Just 16 pairs will get into the mixed-doubles event at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, meaning it will take just four wins to get gold, or three to win silver or bronze. Arruabarrena and Marrero are ranked in the top 35 in women’s and men’s doubles, respectively, which gives them a shot at making the Spanish Olympic team. Here’s one sign that mixed doubles matters more to pros this year: There are 12 pairs in the 32-team Australian Open draw made up of two players who represent the same country, up from just seven last year.

At this site, we often try to use Bayesian thinking. That means we try to estimate the probability of something being true — our prior — and then update it as we gain new information. My Bayesian prior after match-fixing became the dominant tennis topic last week is that we were unlikely to see actual match-fixing with scrutiny so high, and that any suspected match-fixing was likely to be something else. How much should reports about the suspicious mixed-doubles betting change my beliefs?

On the one hand, perhaps quite a bit. Betting on the match really did look funny. Tennis bettors and betting analysts told me that volume on the match — both in terms of the raw number of bets and overall liability — was far heavier than usual for mixed doubles, though the maximum bet at Pinnacle was just $500 at its peak, making it tough to turn too large a profit. And several Marrero doubles matches last year had unusual betting movements, the Times reported. So my Bayesian prior for a Marrero match being fixed might be higher.

“It’s a strange one,” Ian Dorward, a London-based tennis bettor who used to set and adjust tennis betting lines for a bookmaker, said in an email. It “would be a really stupid time to fix it, but maybe he just does not care.” Dorward added, “Either way, it is this type of thing that the TIU should be investigating.” (The TIU doesn’t comment on details of its work.)

On the other hand, as I wrote last week, betting data alone isn’t enough to identify match fixers. There are many other plausible explanations. One that Marrero offered is that he’s injured and that someone in his or his partner’s camp might have let that information slip. Or at a tournament with thousands of fans on the grounds, one could have seen Marrero struggle in practice or in his men’s doubles match, which he’d already lost. The video clips embedded in the Times article from the match hardly are conclusive evidence that Marrero wasn’t trying.

There’s so little data on mixed doubles that it’s not surprising that bookies who often struggle to set opening odds for singles matches might miss big on mixed. Players’ lifetime match records in mixed doubles aren’t readily available and often include just a couple of dozen matches. “With only four mixed doubles events annually, it’s easy to get the opening prices wrong,” Scott Ferguson, a sports gambling consultant, wrote in an email. Odds at Pinnacle for at least two earlier mixed-doubles matches moved by even more.

It could be that bettors noticed before bookies did that Marrero simply stinks at mixed doubles. As the Times reported, he has now lost his last 10 mixed matches and is 7-21 in his career. “Normally, when I play, I play full power, in doubles or singles,” Marrero told the Times. “But when I see the lady in front of me, I feel my hand wants to play, but my head says, ‘Be careful.’ This is not a good combination.”

Carl Bialik is FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.

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