By HARVEY ARATON
Sports of The Times
August 7, 2007
Reading that a match last week involving the highly ranked Russian Nikolay Davydenko is under investigation by men’s professional tennis after betting irregularities, I was reminded of a few wild, high-risk rides I happened to take a few years ago.
Reporting on a story in 2002 about the unlikely (and brief) rise of a young basketball player named Nikoloz Tskitishvili from virtual unknown to fifth pick in the N.B.A. draft, I found myself in the back seat of a Dodge Durango as it tore through the streets of Tbilisi in the Republic of Georgia, treating red lights and other traffic protocols as unheeded suggestions.
At the wheel was a burly fellow named George, introduced as an investigator for the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs, and apparently moonlighting as the driver for a sports agent named Zurab Bokolishvili.
With a shaved head and a closet of finely tailored suits, and boasting of offices and clients in Tbilisi and Moscow, Bokolishvili played host to a couple of American journalists, who, cowering in the back seat, could not help but wonder about Georgian rules of the road.
“No problem for us,” Bokolishvili said, laughing, an assurance that this was what passed for expert driving or a boast that influential men with handguns in their waistbands need not worry about potential consequence.
Were power and a sense of invulnerability the residuals of new capitalist success, or the inevitable result of men with connections in all the right, or wrong, places?
We never did put the pieces of that puzzle together. But an American sports agent, who had lived and worked in Russia, later told me that organized crime and illegal gambling can blend seamlessly with the sports culture in the kind of developing economies and democracies that have become major contributors to the pro tennis circuits.
While no tennis scandal has exploded with the force of the case of the former N.B.A. referee Tim Donaghy, there has been smoke in recent years around well-known Russian players. In 2003, betting on a Yevgeny Kafelnikov match in Lyon, France, was suspended when an ominously large wager was made on his opponent, Fernando Vicente, loser of his previous 12 matches.
Vicente won in straight sets. Kafelnikov, a former world No. 1, retired a year later to try his hand at professional poker.
In 2002, Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, a Russian with suspected mob ties, was accused by the F.B.I., working with Italian authorities, of fixing figure skating competitions at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. What did he have to do with tennis? Nothing, until he showed up in a photo on the Web site of the Ukranian player Andrei Medvedev, with his arms around Medvedev, Kafelnikov and another Russian, Marat Safin.
That brings us to Sopot, Poland, where Davydenko, ranked No. 4 in the world, took the first set, 6-2, from 87th-ranked Martin Vassallo Arguello of Argentina. At that point, money on Arguello poured into a British online gambling company, raising the odds on Davydenko and the overall amount bet to 10 times the average amount.
“The price movement on this was just not what you would expect of a free market where observers were making judgments on the basis of what was happening in front of their eyes,” Mark Davies, the communications director for the betting company, Betfair, wrote yesterday in an e-mail message.
Other than a couple of first-round defeats by Davydenko in previous weeks, it did not make sense to Betfair that such a heavy betting volume would go in Arguello’s direction when he was losing the match.
“In the interests of integrity and fairness, we felt that we had to void the market,” Davies wrote. And per its agreement with the Association of Tennis Professionals, Betfair notified the Tour, which launched its investigation after Davydenko retired with a foot injury in the third set.
Even gamblers were suspicious, according to the log of an online bettors’ forum called The Punter’s Lounge. One poster to the forum, noting the odds swing, wrote during the second set: “It does look for all the world like the fix is in.” Several chimed in that Davydenko had not been a trusted competitor for some time.
Take the ramblings of anonymous, online gamblers for what they are worth, but they are out there, wirelessly connected, looking for that score. When Etienne de Villiers, the ATP’s executive chairman, noted in a statement that tennis was a “one-on-one gladiatorial contest,” he was saying, in effect, that his sport was even more vulnerable to what N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern would call a “rogue, isolated criminal.”
Not to say Davydenko is that. All he is, pending the investigation, is a slumping star with an aching foot. But as the free-market sports world expands, so, too, does the underworld. In many places, where change is occurring at breakneck speed, it is not always easy to tell the difference.