Tennis: Integrity Unit head defends work, tells UK lawmakers it's doing 'as much as we can'

A sign displaying the contact details of the Tennis Integrity Unit at the Australian Open in Melbourne on Jan 21.
A sign displaying the contact details of the Tennis Integrity Unit at the Australian Open in Melbourne on Jan 21. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP) - The head of the Tennis Integrity Unit told a panel of British lawmakers on Wednesday that his under-fire organisation was doing all it could to weed out corruption from the sport.

Nigel Willerton found himself in front of the Culture, Media and Sport committee of the House of Commons where MPs, following the lead of an investigation by the BBC and BuzzFeed made public before the recent Australian Open, grilled him on tennis' fight against cheats.

The sport's various governing bodies have set up an independent inquiry into its anti-corruption practices.

Willerton said the TIU had received 246 alerts of suspicious betting patterns surrounding matches in 2015, up from 91 in 2014.

Figures released by sports betting watchdog ESSA last week showed 73 per cent of the alerts it issued lsat year were for tennis.

However, Willerton insisted an alert is not of itself evidence of corruption and that the figures had to be seen against a backdrop of some 120,000 professional tennis matches in a year.

However, he admitted: "It's far too many. We are concerned and that's why we have gone for an independent review."

This month saw the International Tennis Federation (ITF) announce that two umpires had been banned for corruption and four more were currently suspended while under investigation.

Unranked Thai player Jatuporn Nalamphun has been banned for 18 months and fined after being found guilty of offences under the Tennis Anti-Corruption Programme.

Most of the 19 players and officials sanctioned by the TIU since its creation in 2008 have been operating at the lower levels of the sport, where both financial rewards and media scrutiny are nothing like as great as compared to the top flight of the game.

As if to emphasise that point, Willerton said only five Grand Slam matches over the past three years had prompted alerts, none of them at Wimbledon.

Willerton denied allegations that tennis authorities were reluctant to go after higher-profile players because of possible ensuing bad publicity.

"Tennis is not hiding behind any shield whatsoever. We are doing as much as we can to stop people committing corruption within the sport," he said.

He added that the numbers of TIU staff would increase from six to eight while saying that the unit only had a current budget of US$2 million (S$2.8 million) a year - less than the US$3.3 million received by each of last year's US Open singles winners.