MELBOURNE, Australia -- Tucked away near Rod Laver and Margaret Court arenas at Melbourne Park is a large multilevel conference room where the top players go after their matches and answer questions from the media sitting in rows above them.
That room was filled with reporters and cameras Wednesday morning, but it was not players staring up and fielding questions. Rather, it was leaders of the governing bodies of international tennis, addressing the biggest issue currently facing the sport.
And it was the second time this tournament tennis leaders have had to do so, as match-fixing allegations continue to hang over the Australian Open and all of tennis.
Just before the first ball was served here, a BuzzFeed and BBC story reported the possibility of widespread match-fixing in tennis. The report said suspicious betting patterns showed 16 players could be guilty of throwing matches, though it did not name the players or provide evidence. One week later, The New York Times reported a gambling site shut down wagering on a mixed-doubles match because of suspicious betting patterns (though Australian newspaper The Age reported other betting sites said there were no suspicious patterns).
The reports prompted international tennis to create an independent review board to investigate all possibilities of corruption, announcing the formation of that panel Wednesday. "I would say certainly the events of the last 10 days have caused damage to our sport," said Philip Brook, chairman of the Tennis Integrity Board.
If the match-fixing reports are true, how did tennis get to this point? Why would tennis players take money to fix outcomes in a sport in which they earn more money the more they win?
Two possibilities: The temptation might simply be too great, and betting is too easy for gamblers.
According to research by Dr. Michael Bane at Victoria University in Melbourne, the average expenses for tennis players amount to $160,000 Australian a year (less than $125,000 U.S.). While that might not be much for Roger Federer, who earned $67 million in tour winnings and sponsorships last year, it is a lot for the vast number of players ranked much lower. As Bane's research found, players outside the top 160 in men and top 150 in women did not turn a profit during the 2013 season.
In top team sports, players not only earn a great deal, but travel is paid by their teams. Tennis is different. While lodging is covered at ATP and WTA tournaments, players often pay their own way at lower levels. And players at every level foot their own airfare bill. That can be a huge expense with so many tournaments on so many continents. Plus the players must pay their coaches (and other staff), including their lodging, meal and travel expenses when they tour with them.
"It's tough to pay a full-time coach when you're 19 years old and just finished in the juniors and you have no ranking," doubles player Jamie Murray said. "It is difficult. I think that's just one of the major things tennis really wants to sort out. ... My expenses are probably the same as a guy who is 200th in the world. He's got the same life as me. I'm just sitting at a higher level so I'm able to make more money to cover those expenses."
Consider American Liam Caruana, who is ranked No. 1,632 and traveled here to play juniors, in which there is no prize money.
"In juniors, you don't make that much [or in] the Futures, as well," he said. "I played juniors and a mixture of Futures, and you don't make almost anything. I would say it's like an investment to see if you can make it to the top tier and make money."
While Caruana thinks fixing is clearly wrong, he can understand why a few players might consider it.
"I'm sure some people get the temptation, because not making that much money, they would be tempted," he said. "It's obviously wrong to do. It's not the right thing to do. It hurts the sport because you're hurting the sport in the competition part. But, yeah, I can see how people would think about that."
'The landscape has changed'
Unlike in most U.S. states, sports betting is legal in Australia -- and popular. There are 20 some TAB off-track betting shops throughout Melbourne. Among the top sporting events recently displayed for betting at a TAB shop were the NFC Championship, an NBA game between the Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Clippers, a Carolina Hurricanes-Calgary Flames clash in the NHL, a Mexican soccer match and, oddly, the University of Washington basketball team's game against Utah.
"We bet on everything in Australia," explained an older patron, who identified himself as Lee.
Lee says he gambles a lot and gained his passion from his mother. On the first day of the Australian Open, Lee placed an $80 wager on accurately predicting the outcomes of 20 first-round matches. If he did, he would win nearly $42,000. But he predicted only 15 of the 20.
"I'm not upset about losing it," Lee said. "I'd be jumping for joy if I had won. That's why they call it gambling."
To cover his initial $80 wager, Lee also bet $12 that he could correctly predict eight other matches for a payout of $180. He had the first seven correct, and then Coco Vandeweghe lost her match.
"She cost me."
Told this, Vandeweghe says she often gets tweets and messages on social media from gamblers who lost bets on her. "All the time. Some things are unrepeatable and other things are just, 'You cost me money, blah, blah, blah.'
"Not that I care. I try my hardest to win."
Tennis is not as popular as the major sports in the United States (Vegas.com doesn't even list tennis on its sports betting page), but it is very popular to bet on in other countries. In December, Bloomberg News estimated the betting market on tennis is $5 billion worldwide. That betting is spread over 1,500 tournaments and 93,000 matches.
Tennis also has several more parameters for wagering than simply who will win the match. You can bet how many games will be played and how many each player will win or lose. You can even bet on how many aces they'll serve.
"It's something like 68 different bets possible on a tennis match," Brook told reporters Wednesday. "More than half of them are in play. That, therefore, raises and enhances the possibility for people to organize things that are harder to spot."
More significantly, online betting makes sports gambling easier and increases the audience. You don't have to go to a casino. Just get on your computer. "The landscape has changed," ATP president Chris Kermode said. "We're in a different world."
Several years ago, there was a booth where you could place a bet outside Margaret Court Arena. The Australian Open also became the first major to accept a sponsorship deal with William Hill, a gambling company, the logo of which can be seen around the grounds. Andy Murray called the sponsorship "hypocritical," though Kermode said it isn't an issue.
"I think the more we work with betting companies, because, by the way, it's in their interest that there isn't corruption, right?" he said at officials' first news conference last week. "So they are as strong as we are that we are getting rid of corruption within the game."
Rather than encourage sports betting, would it make more sense to make it illegal, as it is in so much of the United States?
"I think it's an interesting question," Brook said Wednesday. "I think there are parts of the world, France is a good example, where in-play betting is illegal. There are also ways for the French authorities to lock down the use of offshore betting through the Internet, so they have quite an interesting model I think in terms of trying to protect the integrity of sport.
"For sure, this review will be looking at models elsewhere in the world to see how they deal with this issue."
'We have a moral compass issue'
Since the start of the Tennis Integrity Unit in 2008 after the match-fixing scandal involving Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo Arguello surfaced, 18 players have been convicted on corruption charges and five received lifetime bans from the sport. The punishments can be more severe. Former Australian player Nick Lindahl pleaded guilty this week to tanking a match in 2013 -- a Toowoomba Futures Six tournament. He faces a possible 10-year prison sentence.
Of course, fixing must be proven first. And that's difficult to pin down regardless of what betting patterns might show. "In its investigations, the Tennis Integrity Unit has to find evidence as opposed to information, suspicion, or hearsay," Kermode said.
What with the enormous expenses in tennis, a question that arose after the BuzzFeed/BCC match-fixing report was whether the situation could be improved by raising prize money at lower levels. International Tennis Federation president David Haggerty said prize money has been increased and will continue to rise in coming years.
"They're trying to increase the money on the Futures tour, the Challenger tour, so that guys have more opportunity to make more money," Jamie Murray said. "They should because the level of tennis these days is incredibly hard. There are guys playing around No. 200 in the world who are really bloody good but no one has ever heard of them. And they deserve to be making money. Not millions of dollars but they deserve to make a living."
Federer, however, says that pumping up the prize money will not help. "It doesn't matter how much money you pump into the system; there's always going to be people approaching players, or people, any sport."
Like Federer, Haggerty says the main issue is not money. It's morality.
"Really we have a moral compass issue," Haggerty said. "I don't think we can argue about the amount of money that someone will be corrupt at. I just think someone is corrupt or they're not."