French Open organizers taking online betting companies to court over gambling

Brussels – French Open organizers have filed a lawsuit in a bid to ban online gambling companies from offering bets on the Grand Slam tournament.

The complaint filed Friday in courts in Liege in eastern Belgium and in Paris claims that Internet betting companies stain the reputation of the clay-court championship at Roland Garros.

„There is urgency to act because sporting ethic is at risk,“ Jean-Francois Vilotte, director general of the French tennis federation, told The Associated Press. „It is an issue as important as the fight against doping.“

The issue of integrity in tennis came to the fore in August, when an online betting site – Betfair – voided all wagers on a match in Poland between fifth-ranked Nikolay Davydenko and 87th-ranked Martin Vassallo Arguello because of irregular betting patterns. Davydenko withdrew from the match in the third set, citing a foot injury.

The French federation is suing three companies – Betfair, Bwin and Ladbrokes – with a court injunction to stop them from taking bets on the French Open. It seeks a fine of CAD 75,000 a day for any violations, said Vilotte’s lawyer, Jean-Louis Dupont.

Dupont said the federation’s case is built on two tenets: that the betting companies are tainting the reputation of the French Open and unfairly using the tournament as a way of making money.

If a match-fixing scandal hit the French Open, it would undermine the value of the tournament, which had a 2007 revenue CAD 175 million and attracted 450,000 fans to Roland Garros and a potential 3 billion viewers worldwide, Dupont said.

„Targeting the only betting operator which is completely transparent and, where needed, shares all its betting information with the ITF and ATP would be just plain bizarre,“ Betfair managing director Mark Davies wrote in an e-mail. „I would be astonished if any sensible regulator wanted to go down this route or believed it could help protect the integrity of its sport when it so obviously does the opposite.“

Vienna-based Bwin said it was confident it would be able to stave off the legal challenge.

„We offer a service. To explain what happens, we have to use the name of Roland Garros,“ Bwin spokesman Antoine Costanzo said. „We don’t cause the problem. We warn them there is a problem. We help organizers find those who are guilty.“

With soccer and horse racing, tennis is among the most popular sports to bet on.

When Vilotte monitored the ATP Masters Series tournament in Paris, which the French federation also organizes, he said bets over the weeklong event totalled between CAD 750 million and CAD 1.5 billion.

„You can imagine that for Roland Garros, the totals would be much higher,“ he said.

The federation says the betting companies manage to avoid being stuck with the fallout when there is suspicion of match fixing.

„They purely scrap the bets on the event in question and by doing that generate a scandal that the organization and players have to deal with. It can give them a lifelong ugly reputation,“ Dupont said.

The ATP opened an investigation into the Davydenko match, interviewing him and his wife and reviewing telephone records. No findings have been announced.

Since the match, several players have come forward to say they have been approached with offers to fix matches.

Late last year, three Italian pros – Potito Starace, Daniele Bracciali and Alessio Di Mauro – were suspended for betting on tennis matches involving other players.

According to Betfair and Bwin, attacking the official betting companies would only make the situation worse.

„Targeting EU-licensed companies, which are highly regulated, to leave punters (bettors) betting only with unlicensed operators across the web, would completely miss the point,“ Davies said.

Bwin agreed.

„We are a legal company quoted on the Vienna exchange,“ Costanzo said. „The problem is not companies like us, but the black market, which exist in all countries without strict regulation.“