Sport on alert against betting temptations

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LONDON, Sep 28 (Reuters) For a player whose career was in decline and whose earnings were modest, Gilles Elseneer could easily have been tempted by the idea of landing a 140,000-dollar bonanza at Wimbledon.

Days after one senior tennis official warned that betting could become as big a problem as doping in sport, the unheralded Belgian player told a British newspaper Yesterday that he had been approached to throw his first-round match at the grasscourt grand slam two years ago.

Ranked 191st in the world and with career earnings of little more than 300,000 dollars at the time, Elseneer had been drawn to face fellow journeyman Potito Starace.

With neither player a household name, the match was destined to take place on one of the All England Club's far-flung outside courts, in front of a handful of spectators. No matter who won, the result would barely register on the tennis radar.

Elseneer rebuffed the approach and won the match in straight sets. He told Thursday's Times newspaper: ''I had my honour as a player to protect and Wimbledon meant everything to me.'' The ATP, the governing body of men's tennis, is already investigating possible irregular gambling patterns during a match at the Sopot Open in Poland last month.

Internet betting firm Betfair voided bets on the clash between world number four Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo Arguello of Argentina. Russian Davydenko, who retired hurt from the match, denies any involvement.

Former world number four Tim Henman told the BBC this week that he had heard of players being asked to influence the outcome of matches.

''I personally have never experienced it but, listening to the players talking, it seems it goes on,'' Henman said.

''We've got to be very careful, very vigilant about it as tennis doesn't want to be associated with that,'' the Briton added.

Former world number two Tommy Haas said on Thursday that players knew match-fixers were targeting the sport.

''There have been cases where it's quite obvious,'' the German told Reuters at the Thailand Open.

BIG ISSUE The ATP said it had never had cause to punish a player under its anti-corruption regulations, which prohibit players and their coaches and families from betting on matches.

''All the players who have said they've been approached have instantly said 'no'. Our investigations have not found any evidence that a player is sanctionable under those rules,'' a spokesman told Reuters on Thursday.

Roger Draper, chief executive of Britain's Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), however, said on the same programme as Henman that he believed the sport inevitably had a problem with betting.

''I think we would be looking at the world through rose-tinted spectacles if we thought it didn't go on,'' he said.

''I think the way it's going it's becoming as big an issue in sport as doping.'' Match-fixing has reared its head in many other sports.

Seven years ago the cricket world changed irrevocably when South Africa captain Hansie Cronje confessed to taking money from bookmakers to influence the result of matches.

Judicial and police inquiries in several countries revealed unsuspected depths of corruption in the sport and Pakistan captain Salim Malik and his Indian counterpart Mohammad Azharuddhin joined the late Cronje in international exile when all three were banned for life.

German soccer referee Robert Hoyzer was jailed for two years and five months after being found guilty in 2005 of fixing games as part of a two-million-euro betting fraud that tarnished his home nation's reputation ahead of the 2006 World Cup it hosted.

Italy's 2006 Serie A soccer honours were decided in court after Juventus were demoted to the second division and four other clubs had points deducted after being implicated in a match-fixing scandal.

Former champion jockey Kieren Fallon is one of several people on trial at the Old Bailey in London for conspiracy to defraud customers of Betfair.

The ATP said the huge popularity of online betting had made sport vulnerable to corruption.

''You can bet on so many different components of a match because of the way online works, which is why the responsibility is on everyone in tennis to understand what's at stake, to understand what's expected of them and to work with the custodians of the game in order to protect the integrity,'' the spokesman said.

REUTERS BJR RK1105

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