Almost Famous: Vassallo Arguello deals with second-hand notoriety
As Nikolay Davydenko's opponent in the match that created a gambling scandal, Martin Vassallo Arguello was one of the sport's most repeated names last summer. But there's more to him than that one contest.
By Kamakshi Tandon
All it took was one obscure second-round match in Sopot to transform Nikolay Davydenko from an anonymous Top 5 player to the poster child of shady gambling in tennis. But amidst the furor, it was easy to forget the infamous contest featured not just one player, but two.
That other player was Martin Vassallo Arguello, who suddenly found his name appended to the media sensation that resulted when online betting exchange Betfair voided $7 million of wagers on the match because of odd betting patterns.
Overnight, Vassallo Arguello had joined the legion of the almost famous - those whose names are familiar enough to ring a bell, but not for an easily identified reason.
Before he became a supporting actor in the sport's biggest match-fixing drama, the 28-year-old Argentine's claim to fame had been reaching the fourth round of the French Open in 2006. With few other results of note and a modest career-high of No. 58, it's not surprising that he has been mostly in demand for relating his view of events that day. "Every time I do a press conference, this is coming back," Vassallo Arguello said at the Australian Open. "I'm not very happy about this, but I know that it's something that now is part of the conversation and we have to talk about this."
But while he may be reluctant to talk, Vassallo Arguello has plenty to say. Like Janko Tipsarevic, he is of the tour's more intellectually-engaged players, and has never been afraid to make a statement. After winning his third-round match at the French Open run two years ago, Vassallo Arguello dispensed with the obligatory camera-lens autograph and instead signed off with a quote from Che Guevera - "Towards victory, always."
But then, he has a habit of mixing politics with cameras. Vassallo Arguello and fellow pros Juan Pablo Guzman and Juan Pablo Brzezicki run a website called Segundo Saque (www.segundosaque.com
) - Spanish for "second serve" - which features player video clips and interviews. Their lockerroom tape of Novak Djokovic imitating various players became a hit on YouTube after Djokovic did his impressions of Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal on Arthur Ashe stadium at the US Open.
What you won't find on the site are the amateur documentaries Vassallo Arguello occasionally films in his spare time. Tennis players never know what they might stumble on during their nomadic wanderings on the circuit - and so it was for Vassallo Arguello in April 2005, when he found himself playing a challenger in Rome as huge crowds were gathering at the Vatican to hear the identity of the next pope.
He set off for the scene, bringing along the new video camera Guzman had bought for him from Naples for their budding website. "I was there also to see what was going on and what was the decision, which way the church was going," Vassallo Arguello, who is a non-practicing Catholic, said in an interview with TENNIS.com last year. "I also watch the church as a political instrument, so there are many things I don't like about church - all churches, not just Catholic."
Camping out among the faithful and the curious, he got their thoughts on film. "Some had a lot of disappointment because many of them expected a South American pope, some of them expected an Italian pope," he recalled. "But in a political way it was easy to believe that the church was going to turn more conservative."
A year and a half later, Vassallo Arguello was training in Chile during the off-season when former dictator Augusto Pinochet died, massing large numbers of supporters and protesters. "When I know about Pinochet I went there, because I knew that was a moment to bring back a lot of emotion from people who suffered under Pinochet and wanted to be there, and the people who liked Pinochet and wanted to be there," said Vassallo Arguello.
Once again, he wandered around collecting people's thoughts, quite happy to be presumed a journalist if it made people more forthcoming.
It may all seem like an unusual hobby for a pro tennis player, but he doesn't see anything strange about pursuing his interests. "I think everybody is trying to take advantage of the things that they're interested in. For example, [David] Nalbandian is going all the time to rally races because he travels a lot and every time there is one, he goes... Some of them are going to parties," he said. "I was in some places where political things were happening and I like to see those."
His socialist bent stems from his family background and a youth spent in South America, buttressed by his experiences on the circuit.
"[My parents] work a lot for democracy to come back in Argentina, we had a military government in the 70s," he said. "And when came, it was a big party... I was going with them and I was sharing that atmosphere of democracy, politics. People were discussing it a lot and I grow up with that."
Despite the country's political transformation, Vassallo Arguello remained conscious that there remained a large gap between the rich and the poor. "Especially in South America, it is easy to see the differences. You go to the capital and you see a lot of money, and you don't have to travel too much to see the other side of the story. Maybe in places like Europe, it's not easy to see."
Vassallo Arguello found himself trying to breach a similar divide when he set out to try to make it on the circuit. It was the year 2000 and Argentine tennis was hitting the big time with players like Guillermo Coria, David Nalbandian, Gaston Gaudio and Guillermo Canas starting to make their presence felt in the upper reaches of tennis. Meanwhile, a group of their less illustrious compatriots were looking up from the lower ranks. "There were a lot of Argentine players starting to play so good. They were the 'big tennis' and the tennis we wanted to play," said Vassallo Arguello. "We were the 'poor tennis' people.
"We were playing futures and challengers... trying to get points and we could not do it, and the way we're traveling, we always enjoy a lot. It was a little adventure, you know, we were going to hotels and sleeping in chairs, we slept in military places. We were doing our best with not much money. And we were also enjoying [it], and we started to call that 'poor tennis.'"
As they traveled and played and scrimped together, they formed a modest goal: to get one of them into the top 100. In September 2003, Vassallo Arguello hit No. 101 for two tantalizing weeks, but then slid back. Eight months later, he broke the ceiling at No. 96, and was duly dubbed the representative of the working tennis poor. "I was the first one, so they started to call me the president," he said.
Vassallo Arguello's first extended stay in the Top 100 began about a year and a half ago, culminating in his career-high of No. 58 in April last year. Playing regularly in tour events was deeply vindicating. "I was looking at the door and now... I'm sharing lockerrooms with amazing players... I'mpracticing with great players, so I'm starting to feel part of this, and that's amazing after so many years of working for it."
Being congratulated by the likes of Nalbandian and Argentine legend Guillermo Vilas after his French Open victories was a thrill, but he was even more satisfied when his colleagues stopped being as effusive.
"There are two kinds of congratulations, [a routine] one that you say in the locker room. 'Hey, well done.' And the [active] one they come to you and say, 'hey, congratulations for what you did' - in my case, because they know I am from another kind of tour, that I am a level behind them," he observed. "Now the congratulations is different from them. It's like, 'okay, congratulations.' Because they start to feel I am with them all the time andthey respect me a little bit more."
Vassallo Arguello's views on tennis politics are, not surprisingly populist. He is troubled the increasingly market-oriented direction of the tour and, like several of his higher-ranked colleagues, unhappy about the calendar changes being planned. Starting next year, Shanghai will become a Masters event in the fall and Madrid is scheduled to become a combined clay Masters in the spring. That means Monte Carlo and Hamburg will drop down in the pecking order, though Hamburg is disputing the decision in court.
"This president [ATP chief Etienne De Villiers] we have now is trying to make tennis more commercial," said Vassallo Arguello. "He is trying to put tennis on the market, with more money, and we are sold as a product.
"I don't know if it is going to work but I don't like if I'm going to receive a little more prize money [only] to be shut out and to say okay to everything.
"The worst thing is that they are not interested in that communication. It's not [acceptable] that Rafael Nadal didn't know anything about those changes
until they were done. He's No. 2 in the world and he's the clay guy. A lot of us should be consulted.
"You see that Europe is losing power and Europe has a lot of tradition and I don't like that very much... I like to watch Hamburg, I like to watch Monte Carlo and especially for me, the tournaments of clay are the ones I like most are starting to lose power and I don't like it."
He has been even more unhappy with some of the measures the ATP took in response to that notorious match against Sopot against Davydenko, branding them "the political terrorism of scaring you" in his native Spanish at the Australian Open.
Previous anti-corruption rules strictly forbade players from betting on tennis matches. New measures also require them to inform the ATP within 48 hours if they suspect anyone of being involved in match-fixing. "Now there's a new rule that you have to be constantly policing, and pushing away everyone that gets near you asking you something suspicious, or just how you're doing," he continued in Spanish. "There are a lot of things that are not clear or have little meaning."
He is happy, however, that the ATP mounted a proper investigation of the matter so the discussion could be based on more than just mere speculation. Speaking to reporters in English, he said he had not noticed anything unusual during the Davydenko match, learning about the circumstances only after an official informed him the next day.
The match had attracted an eye-catching $7 million worth of wagers on the online betting exchange Betfair and featured highly unusual betting patterns - the odds listed top seed Davydenko as an underdog going into the match and continued to do so even after he won the first set. When Davydenko retired in the third set with a foot injury, there was immediate speculation that the outcome had been known in advance. After some review, Betfair took the unprecedented step of voiding all bets placed on the contest.
In the months that followed, several players came forward to say they had been approached with offers to throw matches for money. Five Italian players - Alessio di Mauro, Daniele Bracciali, Potito Starace, Giorgio Galimberti and Federico Luzzi- have also receiving suspensions ranging from nine months to six weeks for betting small amounts on other players' matches over the past few years.
"I am a friend of them," said Vassallo Arguello. "I spoke to them after that... and the same thing I said to them I say to you - unfortunately, there is nothing to say against the ATP in that case.
"There is a rule that says that you cannot bet. And even if you bet $90 two years ago, there is a rule against that."
Nearly 10 months later, little has been proven about the Sopot match itself. Davydenko currently is in the midst of a dispute about handing over his family's phone records to investigators, arguing through his lawyer that his own records are enough and that the investigation is becoming too invasive.
Vassallo Arguello was also questioned by investigators about whether he had noticed anything during the match and asked for his own phone records, which he handed over.
But when bookmakers quietly began circulating a list of about 140 suspicious matches in which Vassallo Arguello featured multiple times, some different questions seemed to be in order.
"I heard about the list," he said. "At the end of the year, ESPN International came home to do an interview and they showed me that I was in, like, seven or eight matches. And I saw the matches and they were all matches that I was winning and then I lose, or matches that I was losing and then won. But as I said before, they said there are a list of 300 matches [with such scorelines], and I could say there is a list of 20,000 matches."
But there could be a more official line of questioning on the way for Vassallo Arguello. This week, the governing bodies of tennis received a report from investigators that ruled tennis was "not institutionally or systemically corrupt" but found 45 matches that required further scrutiny. It seems likely that the Argentine may have taken part in some of those.
While he waits to see whether he will be cast in a bigger role in this unfortunate saga, there's one thing he isn't doing - getting it all on film. Because his interviews with other players are usually on light-hearted topics, he's worried that their habitual humor might inadvertently land them in trouble.
"It's not easy" he said. "I prefer not to ask about that. I can ask you how you think you can beat Federer, and you tell me 'maybe kick him in a changeover.' But in corruption, if you make a joke like this it can be very dangerous."