Former mafia crime boss Michael Franzese says top-level tennis matches are being influenced by gamblers and the sport would be his prime focus were he still in the business of impacting outcomes.
Franzese, a former boss in the Colombo crime family, serves as a consultant and speaker regarding his days with the mob and has spoken with ATP players about the methods that are used to spread corruption in sport.
"It's definitely going on," Franzese told AFP. "If I were in this business now, tennis would be my major target because one player can impact the game. That's all you need."
An FBI probe in the 1980s and a decade in prison helped push Franzese to change his ways and help those who safeguard the integrity of sport, but his crime contacts lead him to believe organized crime remains involved in tennis.
"I have to believe they are, certainly from the feedbacks I've gotten since I got involved with the ATP," Franzese said. "Sports has become such an incredibly lucrative racket, so to speak, for guys on the street."
Franseze, 57, has spoken with National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, tennis stars and elite US college athletes about the dangers of match-fixers, often counseling newcomers on how to avoid being ensnared in gambling woes.
His talks included a March 2007 session with ATP players.
"They told me there's a problem in the sport. It is something that has to be addressed," he said. "Mainly, I told them how damaging and dangerous it could be for them to get involved in gambling and get around the wrong people.
"Gambling is a very serious business. If you put yourself in a gambling situation, you're most likely going to attract the wrong people because those same people are watching you. They want to find out who's got a gambling problem."
Less than five months after Franzese spoke came a match in Sopot in which unusual on-line betting patterns were registered about Russian Nikolay Davydenko's loss to Argentina's Martin Vassallo-Arguello.
An ATP investigation into the match concluded last September that there was no wrongdoing by Davydenko or his rival.
Franzese remains suspicious.
"He is a pretty top player. Something else is going on there. Somebody has a hook on him," he said.
Franzese claims first-hand expertise at influencing athletes to drop a match to satisfy gamblers, including threats of bodily harm for failure to comply.
"None of these players want to do it. They do it because they're put in a situation," he said. "It's sad because they're doing it against their will. They have no way out. They all regret it. And that's why it's so damaging to their career. Psychologically, it gets to them.
"I've seen it happen so many times. They just can't perform the same. It does affect them. It affects their careers. Sometimes it's irreversible."
The impact on the sport could be as damaging as on the players. If supporters feel betrayed and have no faith the match results are legitimate, interest is likely to fade.
"All of them have a fear of gambling. All of them are not quite sure how to deal with it because they know it can happen at any time," Franseze said.
"In this country, we've had dogfighting incidents, a massive steroid scandal in baseball. They can overcome those things. They will not be able to overcome a major gambling issue.
"Once people start to believe that sports are fixed, that it becomes staged, forget it, the sport is done. Every pro sport knows that."
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