Elena Baltacha’s former coach Nino Severino says they never received match-fixing offers but admits reports damage tennis

Elena Baltacha and Nino Severino. Photo: Jon Buckle/PA Wire.

Elena Baltacha and Nino Severino. Photo: Jon Buckle/PA Wire. - Credit: PA

Nino Severino, the widower and former coach of Ipswich tennis star Elena Baltacha, has said they were never offered money to fix a match.

Elena Baltacha. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Photos.

Elena Baltacha. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Photos. - Credit: PA

But he admitted yesterday’s “upsetting” match-fixing allegations engulfing top-level tennis are damaging to the sport and backed calls for authorities to launch an immediate investigation.

An investigation by the BBC and internet media company BuzzFeed found that the names of 16 players have been flagged repeatedly to the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) over the last decade amid fears they have thrown matches.

The investigation suggests that the suspects include Grand Slam singles and doubles champions and the alleged rigging took place at major tournaments including Wimbledon and the French Open. All the players were allowed to continue competing.

Prime minister David Cameron wants tennis’ governing bodies to investigate the allegations, Downing Street said.

Mr Severino said: “I am very surprised – I think it is a big story being made out of very little pockets of incidents.

“It is upsetting to be honest, because I love the sport. I think the sport has got a great name and I just really hope this is only a few incidents.

Most Read

“If they have got proof of 16 players, the governing body has got to jump on that pretty quickly I would have thought, because you don’t want this rolling out into a FIFA or world athletics situation. It would be terrible.

“It it’s happened, it’s got to be among an absolute minority and I find it difficult to see why any top 50 player – and we were in that bracket and there is good income – would risk it.

“In all my time with Elena, we were never approached. We never, ever got a whiff of anything to do with match-fixing in the whole eight years (they were together on tour).

“(If we had), we would have flatly refused it and there is a process to report it to your governing body, which for us is the WTA.

“But (the allegations) are going to hurt the sport. And once a story like this gets profile, then some people are going to absorb it and questions are going to be floating around people’s minds; ‘oh my gosh, another sport’. But I hope people give it a chance to roll out.

“But I honestly don’t believe this is anywhere near the level of FIFA or athletics. I just don’t believe that and I hope it doesn’t develop into that. It will be interesting to see what evidence they bring up.”

The match-fixing was allegedly orchestrated by gambling syndicates in Russia and Italy and involved prominent players. It is suggested that players are being targeted in hotel rooms at major tournaments and offered 50,000 dollars (£35,200) or more per fix by corrupt gamblers. The syndicates have made hundreds of thousands of pounds placing bets on scores of matches, according to the investigation.

Mr Severino said: “I would have thought the powers that be will now look at it and say, okay, we don’t want the sport tarnished, and there is a lot of money in tennis, and if more money needs to be invested in this team that make sure they are preventing anything like this, then I think more should be invested in it.

“But let’s see if this story is true, what names come out. But knowing the world of tennis and being in it, I would be massively disappointed if this is true and any names are exposed. Let’s hope that is not the case.”

He added: “It will be interesting to see if they name them (the 16 alleged players), and I don’t think anyone should be named unless they have really obviously, hard evidence, because it is just going to be so damaging for that person in particular.

“But if they have done it, then of course the processes have got to roll out, and they have got to be punished for that, if that’s the case, because there is no room for it.

“When I worked with a player like Elena, whose integrity levels were massive… we went through a lot of hardships and there is no excuse for it, so they should be punished if they have got evidence.”

Mr Severino, who helped launch the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis (EBAT), said it is difficult to detect any wrongdoing in tennis.

He said: “If you go on form, head-to-head historical – there are certain patterns that I think if you are a specialist, and they must have specialists in match-fixing, there will be key indicators in terms of ways the points are rolling, maybe the level of players that are playing against each other, the percentages of a player of a certain ranking; it would be so difficult, and tennis is renowned for the big names going down.

“Elena had three wins against top 10 players in one year. But any time Elena did have a massive win against a big player, you are in the drugs room straightaway. They are all over you.

“But it is difficult to track. I wouldn’t want the job, put it that way.”

He also insisted that no British players are likely to be implicated in any of the allegations.

He said: “Without a shadow of doubt, I really hand on my heart do not believe at all that any British players – and I know them – are just not in any sort of place where they would entertain any sort of that thing. Our culture is just too strong.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “It is deeply concerning that another sport is facing such serious allegations. As with the allegations we have seen in other sports like athletics and football, the people who suffer most are the fans.

“The Prime Minister would want to see these issues investigated by the independent authorities. The most important thing is that action is taken in response and the independent authorities get on with that.”

It is claimed the referrals to the TIU, set up to police the sport, were prompted by an investigation which started in 2007 following an inquiry into suspicious betting patterns in a match between Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo Arguello. Both men were cleared of breaking any rules.

Despite an increasing amount of evidence of suspicious activity revolving around a significant number of top players, no sanctions were handed out and the investigation was officially shelved the following year.

Betting investigator Mark Phillips believes the findings of the original 2007 inquiry should have been followed up and acted upon by the relevant authorities.

He told the BBC: “Evidence that we gathered ... we believed was very strong. There was a group of between six and 10 players really who were the main focus of the evidence that we dug up.

“We believed they (the TIU) would carry on the investigations from where we had taken them; we had done a lot of work on the investigation and certainly the betting investigations were a long way down the road.

“As far as we know, nothing happened with the evidence that we presented. Certainly none of the players that we had concerns about faced disciplinary action from the TIU in the next year or two.”

Association of Tennis Professionals president Chris Kermode strongly denied that the TIU, which was set up as an independent body by the sport’s various governing bodies, was deliberately seeking to hide any suspected improprieties.

“I can assure you that tennis is not treating this lightly,” he said, while Nigel Willerton, who leads the TIU, insisted that the sport took a “zero-tolerance approach to all aspects of betting-related corruption”.

Among the allegations is the claim that winners of singles and doubles titles at Grand Slam tournaments are among the core group of 16 players who have repeatedly been reported for losing games when highly-suspicious bets have been placed against them.

It is also suggested that the names of more than 70 players appear on nine leaked lists of suspected fixers who have been flagged up to the tennis authorities over the past decade without being sanctioned.

Mr Kermode, who believes the threat of sports match-fixing is at an “incredibly small level”, told the BBC: “It is simply not true that we are sitting on evidence.

“What happens is that information and intelligence are given to the Tennis Integrity Unit and they then have to turn that into evidence.

“There is a big difference here between information and intelligence as to evidence. Every single bit of information that the Tennis Integrity Unit receives is investigated properly.”

World number two Andy Murray tweeted a link to the Buzzfeed report on Sunday evening.

Building on the initial dossier of evidence, Buzzfeed News claims to have devised an algorithm which analysed gambling on professional tennis matches over the last seven years.

The organisation said its results identified 15 players who regularly featured in matches involving unusually lopsided betting patterns. Furthermore, four of those players lost almost all of those matches concerned, at a probability of around 1,000 to one.

Culture secretary John Whittingdale has also called on the International Tennis Federation to launch an immediate investigation into the allegations.

Mr Whittingdale said: “It is deeply concerning that yet another sport is facing serious allegations of match fixing.

“Once again it has been British investigative journalism that has brought this to light, and has raised serious questions about how this was allowed to go on - and it would seem, deliberately covered up for so long.

“This reinforces the need for a global anti-corruption initiative and demonstrates why the (Prime Minister) is absolutely right to put this at the top of his agenda. He will be hosting a major anti-corruption summit later this year and tackling corruption in sport will play a big part in that.

“I hope that the ITF will launch an urgent and fully transparent investigation immediately.”

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter