PARIS (Reuters) - The vast amounts of prize money on offer means match-fixers tend to give Grand Slam tennis a miss but Roland Garros officials are still having to be vigilant to flush out courtside informants hired by illegal betting organisations.
Onsite betting is illegal in tennis and anyone within the grounds of a tournament usually cannot get access to gambling sites through the event’s wifi network. As a result people are sent to specific courts to transmit results to intermediaries who remain outside of the tournament complex.
“Some spectators who are on the side of the court transmit the result of every point to someone on the outside who will bet online,” Francois Lhospitalier, the French tennis federation (FFT) Legal Director, told Reuters.
Online betting has been strictly regulated in France since 2010, when the Regulation authority of online betting (ARJEL) was created.
“The courtsiders always are a few seconds ahead of the scoreboard, they get privileged information,” he said.
“If the ball goes high up and it is obvious it will land out of the limits of the courts, the point cannot be put on the scoreboard but the courtsider will send the result before it is made official.”
To find those courtsiders, the FFT have several people walking through the stands to detect any suspicious activity.
“A courtsider does not watch the match the same way any other spectator does. They do not react to the points, and they often have a device they use to transmit the results,” said Lhospitalier, who added some courtsiders also used wires connected to the inside of their shoes to avoid being detected.
“They tap with their left or right foot depending on who scores the point,” he detailed.
Every year, Lhospitalier’s team kick out about 30 courtsiders from Roland Garros.
Lhospitalier declined to disclose how many people are hired to identify the courtsiders as he wants the number to stay confidential to avoid the illegal gamblers to adjust.
The FFT’s work starts before the matches, however, with another team looking at online betting sites to ‘check the odds’ and detect anything suspicious.
“It helps us target some matches and put more resources on one specific court,” said Lhospitalier, who is also helped by France’s gaming police, the Tennis Integrity Unit and Macolin, a European platform fighting against manipulation of sports competitions.
“We also go through the deep (invisible) web to check the odds on the dark market,” he said.
Lhospitalier added that match fixing was a low risk at the majors because the high prize money on offer makes it difficult for illegal gamblers to approach players.
At Roland Garros, a first-round loser in 2018 earned 40,000 euros ($47,000).
The FFT is, however, struggling to eradicate courtsiding because it is not a criminal offence in France, while it is in Australia, home of the first Grand Slam of the year.
“In Australia, a courtsider will be charged, prosecuted and fined, while in France you can only kick them out of the stadium,” said Lhospitalier, who called on French authorities to be tougher.
“In the U.S. (where the U.S. Open is played), it’s similar to Australia. In France we need courtsiding to become a criminal offence.”
With visitors to Roland Garros having their names printed on their tickets, there is only one option available to the FFT to try and stamp out the problem.
“When you catch a courtsider, even if they are not charged you can put them on a black list,” said Lhospitalier.
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Reporting by Julien Pretot; editing by Pritha Sarkar