Why it will be hard catching the match fixers in tennis

It all comes back to a very old problem: the relationship between statistical correlation and causation.  They are quite different and should not be confused.

If two phenomena are statistically correlated, this can only be an indication that it is worth establishing (or not establishing) a causal relationship.

The revelations that an algorithm has detected a group of tennis players who may have been involved in match fixing has sent shockwaves through the sport.

Why should we be surprised?

The Australian Open is now sponsored buy a global betting agency William Hill.  There is big money to be won particularly when lowly ranked players bring off sensational wins against more highly favoured opponents.  Gambling is infiltrating its way into every aspect of sport.

It is highly likely that this algorithm compares the world rankings of tennis players and selects out the occurrence of a highly ranked player being beaten by a much lower ranked player, as happened yesterday when Rafael Nadal, ranked fifth in the world, was bundled out of the first round of The Australian Open by Spaniard Fernando Verdasco ranked 47th in the world.

So the algorithm would set an arbitrary difference for world rankings which made it statistically unlikely that the lower-ranked player would win.  Run the last 20 years results through the algorithm and see whose names come up.

Media reports indicate that there is a group of serial offenders.

But the difficulty is that this is a statistical correlation. It does not prove that the players have been accepting money to lose matches.  It merely indicates that these are the players were worthy of investigation.

And it is highly unlikely that a statistical correlation would stand up in court, no matter how the balance of probability described.

And the temptations must be very great for players who are never going to make the big time and who are lucky enough to get a draw against a much more highly favoured opponent but nonetheless also one who will  also not make it to the big time.

A subtle approach is made to both players, a large sum of money is offered to ensure that the lower ranked player wins, large amounts of money are invested was a betting agency and Bob’s your uncle.

And very hard to prove.

While betting is allowed to continue in sport, there will always be people who will fix matches.  The sums of money are so huge that corruption is inevitable.

Unfortunately, tennis is the ideal sport for match fixing. You only need to get to two people.

Welcome to the brave new world.


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