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Evidence Shows Something Terribly Corrupt in Infamous Match

2/7/09 - ESPN - View Source

By John Barr and William Weinbaum

EDITOR'S NOTE: For nearly four months, ESPN's Enterprise Unit has investigated what could go down as the most notorious match in tennis history, the Aug. 2 match in Sopot, Poland, between Nikolay Davydenko of Russia and Martin Vassallo Arguello of Argentina. In reports for and ESPN's "Outside the Lines", ESPN reconstructs how the match unfolded, reveals confidential information from the investigation conducted by the men's tennis tour of the wagering on the match and presents an accomplished gambler's conclusions on whether the match was fixed.

The Super Punter

Mark Bell studies his computer screen, his slightly furrowed brow reflecting a quiet intensity entirely appropriate for the decision he is about to make.

On this day, as Bell visits with ESPN in a London betting shop, Barcelona, with its Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho, is hosting Stuttgart in a Champions League soccer match; and Bell is looking for action, scanning the odds on the British gambling Web site Betfair. He types quickly, flicks his wrist, clicks the mouse and -- just like that -- wagers nearly $140,000 on Barcelona, the heavy favorite. This is typical for Bell, a professional gambler who risks more money on a single sporting event than most people make in a year.

Normally, Bell works from his office above the Elitebet trading room, sandwiched among the cramped storefronts of Highgate in North London. But on Aug. 2 of last year, Bell instead chose to work from his home in the quiet southeast London suburb of Mill Hill. That day, he had his eye on a tennis match. At 2 p.m. London time, Bell logged on to Betfair, as he does every day, to monitor the second round of the Orange Prokom Open. The world's No. 4 player, Nikolay Davydenko of Russia, was taking on No. 87 Martin Vassallo Arguello of Argentina. It didn't take Bell long to realize this would not be an average day of betting online. "Everyone was texting me and calling me, saying, 'Have you seen what's going on?'" Bell recalls. Under normal circumstances, the match, being played 800 miles away in Sopot, Poland, barely would have registered on any gambler's radar, least of all that of someone like Bell. But something was amiss. "Davydenko, prematch, should have been a massive, overwhelming favorite, with his opponent being a clear underdog, yet the odds didn't reflect that at all," Bell says. Eventually, more than $7 million in wagers on the obscure match poured into Betfair, many of them against Davydenko, the tournament's defending champion.

"[Davydenko] became an underdog, a bigger underdog to lose the match, despite winning the first set," Bell says, characterizing the betting pattern as "unheard of in any tennis match prior." Bell would know. At 27, he is what the Brits call a "super punter," the colloquial term for very successful gamblers. In a place where betting on sports over the Internet is both legal and a big business, he is riding a remarkable winning streak. Wagering on horse racing, soccer, tennis, darts and even some snooker, Bell says he has averaged nearly $2 million in gambling profits the past three years. Tax free. Unlike the IRS in the United States, the British government doesn't tax punters on their winnings. The Exchange
Even before the first serve in Poland, concerned Betfair customers began dialing the company's call center in Stevenage, about 40 miles north of London. A record number of postings from anxious account holders flooded the Web site's members-only forum. "We've got 40 to 50 thousand pairs of eyes on the site at any given time, and everybody was saying, 'There's something wrong here,'" Betfair managing director Mark Davies says. Betfair is what is known in the online gambling industry as an "exchange." Launched in June 2000 by former professional punter Andrew Black and former J.P. Morgan vice president Edward Wray, Betfair represents a marriage of Internet sports betting and day trading. Unlike conventional gambling sites, where bookmakers set the odds, Betfair allows the punters to set their own odds and to bet at any point during play. The company simply matches up gamblers who agree to take opposite sides on bets.

A super punter like Bell, who risks tens of thousands of dollars, might bet at several different points during a sporting event, depending on how the odds shift, and go up against hundreds or even thousands of other Betfair customers, who each risk far less money. Betfair wins, regardless of which punter prevails, keeping commissions of 2 to 5 percent of the winners' shares. "We're like a stock exchange for bets, because we're putting people who have one view together with people who have the exact opposing view," Davies says. Tennis currently ranks third in betting volume on Betfair, behind horse racing and soccer. For example, the company matched $60 million in bets on last year's epic five-set Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. But even the growing popularity of tennis betting couldn't explain the developments of Aug. 2, 2007. "I think it's clear that somebody knew something," Davies says. "I don't think there's any doubt about that. "[Davydenko] was winning comfortably, showing no signs of injury, and there was talk on our forum that something was going to go wrong, the wheels were going to come off somehow."

The Money Trail

Betfair and the Association of Tennis Professionals, the governing body of the men's tour, citing concern for an ongoing investigation, won't comment on specific details of the wagering. But information obtained by ESPN from a confidential ATP report reveals a massive concentration of betting by just a few Betfair account holders registered in Russia.

The report was compiled by Mark Phillips, a former bookmaker now employed as an investigator with the British Horseracing Authority, who was hired by the ATP to analyze the betting patterns on Betfair. According to the Phillips report, three Russia-based Betfair accounts risked a total of more than $1.1 million on Vassallo Arguello to win the match, despite the fact that, at the time, he was ranked 83 spots lower than Davydenko and never had won an ATP singles title. Before the match began, according to the report, the Russian Betfair account operating under the username "Djults" wagered $540,942 on Vassallo Arguello to win the match.

Then, just 15 minutes into the first set, with Davydenko leading 2-1, that same account holder added to the bet on Vassallo Arguello, this time backing him as a 1-7 favorite. "To back a lesser player at 1-7 when his opponent was winning the match and appeared to be playing well showed a totally unrealistic level of confidence that [Vassallo Arguello] would win this match," Phillips wrote. Referring to the specific bet, Phillips added, "This suggests the account holder was aware that the match would not be played to completion." Phillips estimated that for Vassallo Arguello to trade on Betfair as a 1-7 favorite, he would have had to be leading Davydenko by a set and a service break. But Vassallo Arguello was down 2-1 when the bet was made, and he would go on to lose the first set 6-2.

According to the Phillips report, 24 minutes into the second set, the Russian Betfair account operating under the username "SgeniA" wagered $368,036 on Vassallo Arguello to win, backing him as a 1-5 favorite, even though by then, Davydenko was up a set. "To place a bet of this size is highly suspicious," Phillips wrote. Then there was the wagering by the account registered in Russia under the username "RustER." The Phillips report states that between September 2005, when the "RustER" account opened, and April 2007, the account's average bet was just $814. But on Aug. 2, with the Sopot match even, the "RustEr" account wagered $253,833 on Vassallo Argeullo to win, backing him, at one point, as an overwhelming 1-11 favorite. An unsuspecting bettor logging onto Betfair at the time of the last "RustEr" wager would have found Davydenko, the player who should have been the favorite, trading as a surprising 11-1 long shot. When contacted by ESPN, Phillips would not comment on his findings. But he wrote in his report that he had never seen so much money wagered on such highly suspect odds.

The Investigation

Bell, the super punter, followed the heavy betting against Davydenko and soon was convinced he was on to a sure thing. So sure, he bet $60,000 on Vassallo Arguello, backing him as a 1-10 favorite. Bell stood to win only $6,000 on that $60,000 bet. At ESPN's request, Bell reviewed both Betfair's general betting patterns and the confidential information about the Russian accounts contained in the Phillips report.

I'm certain that from the betting patterns I was privy to, this match was 100 percent fixed," Bell says. Davydenko eventually retired from the match in Sopot after trailing Vassallo Arguello 2-6, 6-3, 2-1, and later blamed a stress fracture in his left foot for his early exit.

Normally, Betfair would have paid Bell and everyone else who bet on Vassallo Arguello to win, once Davydenko withdrew. But at roughly the same time Davydenko was preparing to walk off the court in Sopot, defeated, managers at Betfair were struggling with a decision unprecedented in the company's seven-year history. Acting on the advice of its risk and integrity unit, the company decided to void more than $7 million in wagers on the match. Just before 4 p.m. in London, not quite two hours after the Sopot match began, the thousands of bettors who had logged on to Betfair to follow a remarkable afternoon of tennis wagering all received the same message in bold red type: SUSPENDED. "We said, 'Look, the betting doesn't appear to be fair,'" says Betfair's Davies. "That is a very, very long way from saying that we think that something is inherently corrupt in either of the players or in the match. It means that the betting wasn't fair." Betfair and the ATP have an agreement to share information on suspect betting, so the gambling company immediately contacted the tour.

Two days after the Sopot match, the ATP launched a formal investigation into the betting. The tennis world hasn't been the same since. Several players have come forward in the past six months with stories that they have been offered money to throw matches. Amid the fallout, Davydenko has become the headline figure in a full-blown betting scandal. He told ESPN, through an interpreter, that he never has been approached to fix a tennis match. "I don't know how to throw a match," Davydenko says. "I know that if you are in pain and can't play on, you withdraw." Davydenko adds that he has no knowledge of the Russian account holders who wagered so heavily against him. Since early August, his camp has been highly critical of the way the ATP has conducted its investigation. "What has happened here to Nikolay is just incredible," says Davydenko's attorney, Frank Immenga. "From the first day, he was pushed into the corner and treated like a criminal." Says Ronnie Leitgeb, Davydenko's manager: "For me, the interesting thing was that immediately it was called 'The Case Davydenko.' This is really what did a lot of damage to Nikolay."

For its part, the ATP has had to strike the delicate balance of investigating a highly unusual betting pattern without unfairly indicting one of the sport's premier players. "We never at any point mentioned Davydenko and went to great lengths, in fact, to stress that nobody should mention any player because their reputations were at stake," ATP executive chairman Etienne de Villiers says. "[Davydenko] is a player, whether he is guilty or not, who deserves due process," de Villiers adds. "He deserves to live by something we all live by, which is, 'We are innocent until we are proven guilty.'" ATP investigators have interviewed Davydenko, his wife, Irina, his brother Eduard (who also is his coach) and his opponent that day in Sopot, Vassallo Arguello. "I don't think the investigation is going to show that Davydenko was involved in anything," Vassallo Arguello says. "Everything that happened on the court seemed very normal to me."

The Player

Reflecting on the day in August that changed his life, Davydenko recalls that when he stepped onto the red clay at the Orange Prokom Open, he was tired and had a nagging pain in his left big toe. Known for playing one of the most grueling schedules on the ATP tour, Davydenko, by early August, was on a nasty losing streak. In the three tournaments leading up to the Sopot match, he suffered consecutive first-round losses, all on clay, all against lower-ranked opponents. Davydenko says that beyond his family, the only person he told about his sore foot prior to the Sopot match was ATP trainer Christiaan Swier.

There was no sign of trouble on the court for the world's fourth-ranked player through the first set. He easily won it 6-2. But early in the second set, Davydenko began receiving treatment on his left foot. With his shoe off, shaded from the August heat by an umbrella, he winced as Swier massaged the base of his left big toe. "I asked him … even during the second set, 'What will happen with my foot? Will it get worse or not?'" Davydenko says of his conversations with Swier as he was being treated between games. "He could not give me an answer."

As for the unusual betting patterns on Betfair and the heavy wagering on his little-known opponent by the accounts registered in Russia, Davydenko says gamblers might have noted the struggles he had in prior matches and perhaps also had inside information about his injury. Davydenko's attorney, Immenga, questions whether Swier somehow tipped gamblers to the player's injury. "Who knows what he really knew about this, you know?" Immenga says. "He could have told about five or six people to bet money." "I didn't talk to anybody," Swier says. "There's nobody who came up to me and said, 'Is he injured or not?' But I don't know. The training room is not a closed environment."

Swier acknowledges that he, too, has spoken with ATP investigators, but he referred all other ESPN questions to an ATP spokesperson. According to an official injury report from the Orange Prokom Open, Davydenko's foot pain was due to "overuse during match play." Davydenko's manager, Leitgeb, says that a week after the match in Poland, at the Rogers Masters tournament in Montreal, Davydenko was diagnosed by an ATP doctor with a stress fracture. "I do have evidence that I was injured," Davydenko says. "That's why I couldn't finish the match." The ATP won't comment on Davydenko's medical condition.

But it appears, from his record on the court immediately after the Sopot match, that he recovered fairly quickly. The week after retiring against Vassallo Arguello, Davydenko beat two players ranked in the top 30 at the event in Canada, the same event where Leitgeb says Davydenko was diagnosed with a stress fracture. Two weeks later, Davydenko was healthy enough to make it to the semifinals of the U.S. Open before he lost to Roger Federer. Bell, the super punter, questions Davydenko's explanation of the events in Poland. "I think that's a very lame attempt to create a smoke screen over the truth of the matter that he was never going to win that match," Bell says. To Bell, the real story is in the Betfair marketplace, where odds shift and players rise and fall like commodities on a stock exchange.

"The bets that were being placed on the exchange reflect a level of surety way beyond any kind of guessing about this injury being an impediment," Bell says. "These bets were, 'I know something you don't. Please match me.'" Adding to the intrigue in recent months have been unsubstantiated rumors that Davydenko might have connections to Russian organized crime. Davydenko dismisses them as "ridiculous" and "laughable." "It's 2007, and there is no mafia in Russia," he says. Leitgeb points to the fact that Davydenko moved to Germany at age 12, saying, "He's more German than Russian." Immenga says that if the Russian mafia were somehow blackmailing or extorting his client, he would have told the ATP months ago. Instead, more than six months later, Davydenko remains under a cloud of suspicion in the minds of many tennis fans. "I want them to know that I am not guilty in this matter, that in fact I am clean," Davydenko says. He adds that he is angry the ATP investigation has taken so long.

The ATP responds by pointing out that Davydenko's ongoing refusal to turn over the phone records of his wife and brother has delayed the outcome of the investigation. Davydenko released his personal phone records to investigators in early December. "[The ATP] made it a very public investigation," Leitgeb says. "So at the end of the day, they have to come out with a statement, because they cannot just leave it in the air."

The central question is whether Davydenko, or anyone in his inner circle, has a connection to the people who wagered so heavily on him to lose to Vassallo Arguello. "We need to connect the dots," says the ATP's de Villiers. "Certain bets took place at certain times. Certain people placed those bets. We need to try and connect those dots. Were they related? How were they related?"

Privately, those close to the ATP investigation say the gamblers who had their huge wagers voided by Betfair likely made a killing by betting on Vassallo Arguello to win either on other gambling Web sites or the old-fashioned way -- with bookies. While Betfair and the men's tennis tour won't comment on specific details of the investigation, Betfair says it has a general "know your customer" policy and so knows the identities of the people who open accounts with the site. Davydenko, though, says ATP investigators told him they have come up empty in pursuit of the Russia-based accounts.

"[The investigators] say that accounts are in false names and it's very difficult to find out who they are," Davydenko says. "They say that the bets were definitely placed in Russia, but they don't know exactly from where or what." De Villiers says the tour will devote as much time and money as necessary to find out what really happened in Sopot, but after more than six months of investigating, his confidence is tempered by a sinking reality that the outcome might remain unclear. "We may never know," he says. "We may get to the point where we think we know, but we can't prove it."

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