Monday, January 25, 2016

Et tu, tennis! Gambling syndicates are invading the noble game. Is nothing sacred any more?

In sports, boxers earn the most. Floyd Mayweather's pickings last year was $ 300 million. To understand how big that is, we must look at footballers, the next biggest earners. Christiano Ronaldo made $ 80 million in 2015 and Lionel Messi $ 74 million, the two together accounting for just about half of Mayweather's harvest. By these standards, cricketers are paupers. M.S.Dhoni, the world's highest earner in that game, made a mere $ 23 million last year, a little over a quarter of Ronaldo's and less than what Mayweather gives away as tips.

What does this kind of money do to the stars? Does it make them wise or foolish? Mayweather wears a cap with three words prominently emblazoned on them -- Money. Power. Respect -- presumably his life's goals. He has a private jet for himself and another for his bodyguards. Is that power? He keeps a fleet of luxury limousines, all in white, at his Miami mansion and another fleet, in black, at his Las Vegas palace. Does that bring him respect? In fact significant segments of people ridicule him. The man knows what he wants, but not how to get it.

What does big money do to sports? Alas, it pushes them deeper and deeper into scandals. Boxing is known in America as the Red Light District of sports because of the involvement of mafia-backed syndicates. Organised football stinks to the high heavens. Last year seven officials of the governing body, FIFA, were arrested on charges of fraud, bribery and money laundering. FIFA President Sepp Blatter was banned from football for eight years.

Cricket management in India has been just as maleficent, but the big manipulators at the top escape without a scratch because they are ranking politicians or business tycoons; those who are punished are players, and that too, below the top level. The corruption and mismanagement during the Commonwealth Games shamed all of India, but the perpetrators remained shameless. After their jail terms, Suresh Kalmadi was named Life President of the Asian Athletics Association (though he lost the election to the President's post) while his fellow conspirator, Lalit Bhanot, was elected vice president.

Cricket went evil in India after it was reconfigured to become a money-spinning apparatus -- a television-based mass spectacle, aided and abetted by advertising and publicity brouhaha. Corruption seems directly linked to the mass appeal of a sport. The bigger the money, the bigger the scandals because the money attracts the syndicates. This seems to have caught up at last with tennis, the gentleman's game, played and nurtured as such till recently.

There is a dignity about tennis that is best exemplified by Wimbledon. Everything is so understated that the annual tournament does not even mention the word tennis; it's enough to say "The championships, Wimbledon". The organisation that runs it feels no need to mention "tennis" either; it's enough to say "The All England Club". For that matter, which other human activity avoids the term zero and says, instead, Love?

All that nobility and class have now been overtaken by allegations of match-fixing. Alerts about suspicious betting had been passed on to the authorities during the past decade, but to no effect. Among the suspects was a core group of 16 who reached the top 50 in these ten years. Many of them are said to be still playing in grand slam tournaments. What can be more damning to the reputation of a game? After every magnificent match, we will now wonder: Was there something behind it? Will the reigning champions, admired for their transparency as much as their skills, be affected by the polluted air?

Now that the scandal is out, we can see how easy it is to fix a tennis match: one solitary player is all that is needed. The motivation is also easy to provide. Tennis players' earnings are unbelievably uneven. The year Djokovic made $ 14 million, there was another player whose earnings were $ 36 (correct, no zeros following the 6). How many two- and three-digit earners can say no to a five-digit offer for losing a match?

With Russian and Italian gambling syndicates turning their attention to tennis, it may not be easy to keep the game clean. The top players play for rankings and for the glory of the game. They will not be stained -- hopefully. But what about others on the way to the top? It is becoming impossible to afford a conscience these days. Is nothing sacred any more? Et tu, Tennis!