A former senior British police officer who investigated match-fixing in world tennis has spoken out for the first time to condemn the sport’s governing bodies for failing to pursue the “extremely damaging evidence” presented to them.
In the wake of the #TennisRacket investigation by BuzzFeed News and the BBC, the tennis authorities said evidence uncovered by a landmark match-fixing probe in 2008 was not strong enough to warrant any further investigation.
But now Albert Kirby, a retired detective superintendent who was on the team that conducted that investigation, has rejected the governing bodies’ claims and revealed that he told the authorities at the time that the evidence demanded a “vigorous enquiry”.
Kirby, whose previous cases include solving the notorious 1993 murder of 2-year-old James Bulger, has supplied BuzzFeed News and the BBC with the strongly worded report outlining what he calls “irrefutable” evidence that was handed to the Association of Tennis Professionals.
In the report, Kirby warned that a failure to investigate the evidence would make it “appear that the tennis authorities are unable, or unwilling, to vigorously pursue corruption allegations and impinge on the integrity of the sport.” But no action was taken.
“There was more concern over protecting the image of the integrity of their sport than doing their dirty washing in public,” Kirby said this week. “I’m sad to say that I honestly believe that was the case here.” The ATP and the Tennis Integrity Unit have said they “reject any suggestion that evidence of match-fixing has been suppressed, for commercial or any other reason.”
World tennis has been engulfed by controversy this week after BuzzFeed News and the BBC revealed that the authorities have allowed a core group of 16 players to continue competing despite repeated warnings over the past decade that they are suspected of fixing matches.
The investigation was based on a cache of leaked documents from inside the sport, as well as an original analysis of the betting activity on 26,000 matches and interviews across three continents with gambling and match-fixing experts, tennis officials, and players.
The 2008 investigation was triggered by a notorious match between the Russian world No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko and the Argentine player Martin Vassallo Arguello.
Both Vassallo Arguello and Davydenko were found not to have broken any rules following the 2008 investigation and no action was taken against any of the other players implicated in suspicious matches linked to the Russian and Italian betting syndicates. Investigators also handed the ATP a list of 28 players suspected of manipulating matches for gambling syndicates in Sicily, North Italy, and Russia.
The Tennis Integrity Unit, which was set up by the sport’s governing bodies to take a “zero tolerance” approach to gambling corruption after the investigation, has also responded to this week’s revelations by downplaying the evidence gathered in 2008.
“The information (Not evidence) was evaluated and found to be insufficient to commence formal disciplinary procedures,” the unit’s director, Nigel Willerton, wrote in a letter to BuzzFeed News and the BBC this week.
But Kirby rejected the assertion that the information his investigation had found did not constitute evidence. “I couldn’t disagree with that more,” he said. “In any enquiry you get intelligence that comes in. One single piece of intelligence by itself may not be very good. But when you have a number of threads of intelligence coming in, all relating to the same thing, then you’ve got an excellent reason to think there’s some justification for this and you should then get your mind in order and investigate it.”
In his report to the ATP, Kirby insisted that that his suspicions about Davydenko’s links to a Russian betting ring and phone evidence proving Vassallo Arguello was in contact with Italian gamblers about previous matches must be investigated further.
“To fail to pursue ALL aspects of the enquiry regarding Davydenko, could appear the tennis authorities are unable, or unwilling to vigorously pursue corruption allegations,” he warned.
“The completion of a vigorous enquiry, together with a strong public warning by the ATP, regarding the practice of dubious withdrawals from tournaments (tanking) would I suggest be a strong and effective disruption tactic by the ATP in pursuing their anti-corruption policies,” he wrote.
His report noted that a forensic examination of Vassallo Arguello’s phone had recovered 400 text messages that he had deleted just two days before he handed it over, showing that the player had been in direct contact with four Italian gamblers who cashed in on his matches.
It concluded: “At the time of submitting this report, we are now in the position of being able to highlight some extremely damaging evidence regarding possible corrupt activity by Agruello [sic].” He went on: “I would suggest that enquiries concerning Arguello should be pursued as a matter of urgency as we are now in a position to suspect that a corrupt player is participating in matches throughout world tennis.”
The Sicilian gamblers had made hundreds of thousands of pounds betting on five of Arguello’s matches — including at Wimbledon. “They could use their own rules, the ATP rules, to discipline him and suspend him from the sport for a period of time or a lifetime,” Kirby told BuzzFeed News and the BBC. “The evidence was there and it wouldn’t have taken them much work to actually get that as a foolproof case.”
Vassallo Arguello has not responded to questions about his connections with the Italian gamblers. But he rejected any allegations of wrongdoing in an interview with an Argentine paper this week and said he had cooperated fully with the investigation, supplying his phone and bank records. “I'm sure I did nothing,” he said. “The ATP declared us innocent.”
The report also raised concerns about Davydenko’s lack of full cooperation with the investigation. The Russian player had resisted demands that he hand over his phone for forensic examination, and Kirby raised the possibility that his call records and texts could “show a direct link” between the player and the Russian account holders.
Davydenko was eventually forced to hand over his phone records, but he had resisted for so long that much of the information from the relevant time period was irretrievable. He has always categorically denied any wrongdoing. His lawyer said last week: “Nikolay has finally been able to overcome the emotional distress suffered by this unjustified proceeding and does not want to be part of any further speculations … Therefore, he will not be giving further answers to questions that he has answered already.”
Kirby is now the sixth former tennis insider to break ranks and accuse the sport of stonewalling compelling evidence: Ben Gunn, whose review led to the formation of the Tennis Integrity Unit; Richard Ings, the ATP executive introduced the sport’s anti-corruption programme; and the three investigators from the British Horseracing Authority who were called in to conduct the 2008 probe have all raised concerns that the authorities are failing to get to grips with growing corruption.
He said this week that his call for an investigation could not have been made clearer. “I’ve read [the report] several times today, and I just fail to see how I could have chosen any other words which could have been more clear to say what I felt should have been done,” he said.
Heidi Blake is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News based in London. She is the author of From Russia With Blood: The Kremlin's Ruthless Assassination Program and Vladimir Putin's Secret War on the West, and the co-author of The Ugly Game: The Qatari Plot to Buy the World Cup
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