Tanking not a measurable offence
Viewpoint James Martin
Would Nikolay Davydenko have been fined for lack of effort if he wasn't in the spotlight over match-fixing allegations?
© Franck Fife/AFP Getty
As most of you know, the ATP fined Nikolay Davydenko $2,000 last week for “lack of best effort” after the Russian lost to Croatian qualifier Marin Cilic at the St. Petersburg Open 1-6, 7-5, 6-1.
Without rehashing too much, Davydenko earned a rebuke from the umpire in the third set after serving one too many double faults. "When I made a double fault, he [the chair umpire] gave me a warning, saying I was trying to lose on purpose,” Davydenko said after the match. “I was simply shocked to hear him say that. This is just outrageous.”
Davydenko is right. The ATP’s action was outrageous. It’s one thing to fine a player for something quantifiable or just clearly wrong—throwing a racquet, verbally abusing an official, taking more time than the allotted 20 seconds between points. But to ding a player for tanking is ridiculous. How do you really know? Just because there’s a lopsided score? Because someone threw in one too many double faults? And how many double faults constitutes tanking versus just having a bad day?
It’s a slippery slope, to say the least.
Anyone who’s played competitive tennis can tell you about the downward spiral: you start missing shots, lose your confidence, and lose your mind. Your gameplan is shot and you’re left desperately trying to play outside of your comfort zone. Is that tanking? No, it’s called playing tennis, and some players have an ability to better control their emotions and concentration.
Who knows if Davydenko tanked – what we do know is that he’s one of the grittiest and hardest working players on tour. To him, a vacation is the hours he spends on a plane from one tour stop to the next. In St. Petersburg he was having an off day; that much is certain. “The reality is that I started feeling tired. My legs were just dead by the third set,” Davydenko said.
If anyone’s earned the right to be tired on the court, in the fall, after a long season, it’s him. (For the record, he’s played 79 matches so far this year.)
This isn’t the first time a player has been penalized for tanking. Marat Safin was fined $2,000 for putting on the flippers and goggles against Grant Stafford in the first round of the Australian Open in 2000. Irakli Labadze was reportedly fined $7,500 for tanking in 2003. Even the king, Roger Federer, was once fined a whopping $100 at a Swiss tournament back in the day. And now Davydenko.
In fining Davydenko and the others, the men’s tour is sending the message that they have the preternatural power to determine not only the amount of effort a player is giving, but also the motivation behind the effort or lack thereof. Is it fatigue? Does the player have an injury? Did he just have a fight with his girlfriend and can’t concentrate? Or is he so upset for whatever reason that he’s willingly giving points away? The ATP apparently knows. My advice: The chair umpire in the Davydenko match should get a gig on daytime TV, or at least a seat on The View, where he could show off his perspicacious powers to divine all the intricacies of human nature.
What makes the ATP’s actions against Davydenko all the more peculiar, of course, is that the Russian has been at the epicenter of the tour’s ever-expanding (out of control?) match-fixing controversy. Do you think Davydenko would have been fined if the on-line betting scandal hadn’t erupted and his integrity called into question? Another question: If the tour thinks it has such a strong case that Davydenko did, in fact, tank, why the paltry $2,000 fine for a man who’s earned $1.5 million in prize money this season?
Problem is, there are no reasonable answers to any of these questions because the whole situation is absurd.
If we’re going to speak of a “lack of effort,” let’s talk about why the tour hasn’t been more steadfast in its effort to bring all of the players together to get their input on the issue once and for all. Oh, the ATP has the equivalent of a suggestion box—hey, players, let us know if you’ve been contacted by any shady people about throwing a match and we’ll look into it—but this has done nothing to stem the constant revelations. It seems that every week another player tells the media that a bad guy has approached him to throw a match. This week it was Arnauld Clement’s turn to blow the whistle.
It’s a good thing that the players are speaking out, as it’s the only way to eliminate corruption, but when these revelations come out in drips and drabs through various media outlets, it only serves to feed negative headlines week in, week out. It also reinforces the perception, real or not, that the ATP has no clue about how to handle this admittedly tricky problem.
But is it really that difficult for the ATP to mandate that each and every player be required to talk to a tour official about match-fixing and inform them if he has ever been approached to throw a match, and by whom? Then the tour could have one spokesperson handle all efforts with the media. This is PR
If the tour can’t effectively manage this problem from a media-relations standpoint, how are we to believe they can actually get to the bottom of the actual problem, which is possibly widespread corruption? If fining Davydenko for “lack of effort” is their answer, the sport is in serious trouble.
James Martin is the editor-in-chief of TENNIS magazine.