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Who’s Behind the “Tennis Racket?”

World tennis was stunned last month by allegations of widespread match-fixing, as well as the utter failure of the game’s authorities to deal with the underhanded practice. In a blockbuster investigation called The Tennis Racket, by BuzzFeed data reporter John Templon and BuzzFeed UK investigations editor Heidi Blake, the journalists drew on evidence from leaked files showing that 16 tennis players (who at some point have been ranked in the top 50) have been repeatedly flagged to the Tennis Integrity Unit for suspicions they had thrown matches or arranged for their opponent to lose.

Those suspicions supported a BuzzFeed data analysis, in partnership with the BBC, of betting data and the outcomes of 26,000 ATP Tour and Grand Slam matches. While the BuzzFeed/BBC investigation stopped short of naming names, other outlets, including Medium, have pounced on the report’s methodology and data analysis to de-anonymize the top suspects, fueling further controversy.

On this week’s podcast, ProPublica managing editor Robin Fields and assistant managing editor Scott Klein talk with BuzzFeed’s John Templon about the investigation’s methodology, why they chose to keep their findings anonymous, and the reaction from world tennis just weeks after publication.

Jason O’Brien/Reuters

Highlights from their conversation:

  • The BuzzFeed/BBC analysis found suspicious trends, with the odds for particular tournaments changing in response to bets made on them.
    Templon: The bookmakers are going to say, “We're getting a lot of money on one player; we need to make it more favorable for people to bet on the other player.” So they're going to shift those odds. We looked for all matches where the odds shifted against a player. Then we looked at how often they lose those matches. What we found is that some players lose those matches much more often than you would expect when you're looking at the opening odds of the match. (4:32)

  • …But these patterns don’t necessarily prove match-fixing.
    Templon: One of the reasons [we decided not to name names] is that just because there are suspicious betting patterns doesn't necessarily mean that someone is fixing. We don’t have the ability to get the phone records and the computer records, bank records that the authorities have the ability to compel. The other part is that our story is really focused on the fact that the authorities aren't doing enough to police this in tennis. We thought that the large scope of the numbers – the 70 players who have been flagged, the 16 top-ranked players who have been flagged repeatedly – were more impactful than tarring maybe one or two players with this match-fixer brush. (6:11)

  • The reaction from world tennis has been swift.
    Templon: They immediately sought to deny that they'd ever covered up anything about their investigations, and said that they thought the suggestion was incorrect. It's really opened up a conversation around it, and players have spoken about how they've been approached in the past. It's good that that's getting out in the open. We feel like more transparency about the process and what's going on there is important. We hope that the investigators are taking it seriously and they're doing more work as well. (14:31)

  • Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more, read the BuzzFeed/BBC investigation The Tennis Racket.

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