Whistleblower spurned by players for exposing tennis crooks
ORDINO, Andorra (AP) — As a brave whistleblower, Marco Trungelliti should be feeling good about himself. The Argentine player exposed match-fixing crooks in tennis, helped the fight against the criminal gambling syndicates that are corroding his sport from within and testified about dishonest fellow professionals who, in part thanks to his evidence, are now banned.
But instead, the 29-year-old says doing the right thing cost him dearly. Ranked No. 139, he’s one of the few players so established in the sport willing to speak frankly about the fixers who pay athletes to lose so they can profit from bets on the crooked results. The price of Trungelliti’s honesty has been rejection by other players and stress that hurt his health and his game.
Compounding his unhappiness, Trungelliti also feels he’s been left out to dry by tennis administrators and their anti-corruption investigators. Having pumped him for evidence, he says they failed to publicly defend him against those in tennis who muddied his name, questioned his motives for giving evidence and labeled him a rat.
“They just used me,” he says. “They just dropped me in the middle of the sea.”
“It was a disaster, disaster. In my opinion, it was one of the worst procedures that I have ever seen,” he adds. “I’m still paying the price.”
Trungelliti caused a sensation at the French Open last year when he, his younger brother, mother and 88-year-old grandmother squeezed into a rental car and dashed 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from Spain to Roland Garros so he could fill a “lucky loser” spot at the Grand Slam tournament that opened at the last minute when injured players withdrew.
What few knew at the time was that behind his easy smile, thick curls and feel-good 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 first-round victory against Australian Bernard Tomic, Trungelliti was shouldering a weighty secret: He’d been a key witness in a match-fixing probe that snared three fellow Argentines, testifying even though he knew that, back in Argentina, he’d likely face a backlash for doing so.
Best-known of the three was Nicolas Kicker, at No. 84, the highest-ranked player convicted so far of fixing matches. The Tennis Integrity Unit, the sport’s anti-corruption body with 17 full-time staffers, an annual budget of nearly $5 million and veteran ex-police investigators, announced Kicker’s guilt just three days before the French Open, where he had been preparing to play. Neither the TIU nor Trungelliti gave even the slightest hint at the time of the role he’d played.
In the aftermath, however, Trungelliti noticed player attitudes changing toward him. Even some he regarded as friends asked why he didn’t keep his mouth shut.
“No one was saying ‘Hi’ any more. No one was looking at me,” he says. “It’s sad.”
Contacted by The Associated Press, the TIU said it couldn’t comment because of its “long-standing confidentiality policy with regard to disciplinary hearings and witness evidence.”
Behind the scenes, Trungelliti has repeatedly contacted the unit, asking without success for it to defend him.
“Due to my participation in the trial, I receive all kinds of insults from players to managers,” he emailed the TIU last August. “They are trying soil my honor.”
Trungelliti’s wife, Nadir, says there were times when the stress reduced him to tears. When he was playing, he just wanted to be home. He smashed rackets. A back injury flared again.
But he’s not shutting up.
Trungelliti says match-fixing is an open secret in the game and getting worse.
“It’s not just the players’ problem,” he says. “There are a lot of coaches involved. A lot. A lot. More than we think.”
“If you are weak mentally, then you go in, you are all in, for sure, because it’s easy money,” he says. “If you think about it, this is like one hour working for one hundred thousand dollars.”
The evidence bears him out.
An investigation commissioned by tennis administrators concluded last December that betting-related corruption is “particularly acute and pervasive” at lower- and mid-level Futures and Challenger tournaments, below the top-tier ATP tour.
Gambling syndicates often target players who, unlike the sport’s multi-millionaire stars, struggle to make a good living. In Belgium, prosecutors say they identified 137 mostly lower-level players , from more than a half-dozen countries, suspected of having worked with an Armenian-led gang rolled up last June that allegedly paid 500 to 3,000 euros ($570 to $3,400) for fixed matches and sets. Police say the syndicate employed mules, people hired for a few dollars to place bets small enough to slip under the radar of gambling watchdogs. Two other match-fixing operations were broken up in Spain , in June and October.
Trungelliti says he felt compelled to come forward when he was approached in July 2015 by a fixer who posed as a potential sponsor and was introduced via his coach. He wrote to the TIU, saying the fixer “asked me to keep quiet.”
“But I can’t because I hate this,” he wrote. “Can you please tell me what I can do? I have his name, his telephone number and a few things he told me.”
Those “things” proved explosive.
In a subsequent hour-long interview with a TIU investigator and in a four-page witness statement, Trungelliti meticulously detailed what he knew. He said the fixer laid out a sliding scale of bribes: $2,000 to $3,000 for fixed Futures matches; $5,000 to $10,000 in mid-level Challenger tournaments; $50,000 to $100,000 on the ATP tour where the biggest stars play.
The fixer said he paid cash and communicated using encrypted, easily deleted text messages. He reeled off players he said he’d fixed matches with. Three leapt out at Trungelliti, all Argentines: Kicker, Patricio Heras and Federico Coria.
The fixer was particularly “proud” of a Challenger match fixed in Italy with Kicker, Trungelliti told the TIU. Kicker lost 6-1, 6-2 in 63 minutes to South Korea’s Duckhee Lee, then ranked 74 spots below Kicker, at No. 278.
Kicker is now serving a three-year ban, with the possibility of an additional three-year suspension hanging over him if he breaches anti-corruption rules again.
Heras, whose career-best ranking was No. 269 in 2013, also is banned for three years, with an additional two years suspended .
Coria was banned for two months, with another six months suspended, for failing to report that he was offered money in July 2015 to lose a set at a Futures tournament in Italy and for not telling the TIU of another approach a month later to lose several matches. The TIU specified that Coria hadn’t actually taken money or fixed games. But the TIU investigator who questioned Coria testified there was evidence in his iPhone of contacts with the fixer who also sought to groom Trungelliti.
Whether the fixer is still operating is unclear. The TIU hasn’t announced any sanctions against the fixer or said whether it shared Trungelliti’s testimony about him with police.
As painful as the whistleblowing process has been for Trungelliti, he says he’d go through it again if he had to. He says he reported a separate approach by another fixer in 2016.
His TIU witness statement neatly summed up his thinking.
“I love tennis,” he testified. “I feel very saddened by the state of tennis and the fact that match-fixing is happening so often.”