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Tennis Integrity Unit reveals surge in suspicious betting activity

ATP chief Chris Kermode appeared in front of the committee with the TIU's Nigel Willerton Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The number of alerts of suspicious betting activity flagged up and passed to the Tennis Integrity Unit has increased by more than 17 times since 2012, the unit's chief has revealed.

Appearing in front of the UK Parliament's Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Nigel Willerton said the TIU had received 246 alerts of suspicious betting patterns surrounding matches in 2015, up from 91 in 2014. In 2012, the number was just 14, rising to 46 in 2013.

Willerton was joined at the hearing on Wednesday by ATP chief Chris Kermode and chief legal officer Mark Young to respond to high-profile allegations about corruption in tennis.

Over an hour and 40 minutes, the trio were quizzed by committee members at the House of Commons, led by Conservative MP Jesse Norman.

The lines of questioning were similar to those the trio have faced since the issue of integrity in tennis hit the headlines on the eve of the Australian Open following investigations by the BBC and BuzzFeed.

The response of the sport's governing bodies was to set up an independent investigation into its anti-corruption practices, which is expected to take at least 12 months.

Figures released by sports betting watchdog ESSA last week revealed 73 percent of the alerts they issued in 2015 were for tennis.

Willerton stressed that an alert does not mean corruption has taken place, and that 246 is a tiny percentage of the 120,000 professional tennis matches that take place every year, but admitted: "It's far too many.

"We are concerned and that's why we have gone for an independent review."

The TIU has sanctioned 21 players and officials since it was set up in 2008, seven of them since the start of 2015.

The vast majority of those caught play on the Futures Tour, the lowest level of professional tennis, and this is where the major problem is believed to lie - strangely, no one from the International Tennis Federation, which runs the Futures Tour, was called to attend the hearing.

Willerton cited tournaments in South America, particularly Argentina and Chile, and Russia as problematic and revealed only five grand slam matches over the past three years had prompted alerts, none of them at Wimbledon.

The BBC and BuzzFeed allegations were so headline-grabbing because they centred on a group of 16 players at the top level of the game who they claimed had been involved in match-fixing but had not been properly investigated and allowed to continue competing.

Willerton, who began his job in 2013, admitted he did not know the identity of the 16 players, with the allegations dating back to the formation of the TIU in 2008 following a notorious match in Poland a year earlier between Martin Vassallo Arguello and Nikolay Davydenko.

Both players were eventually cleared of wrongdoing. The allegation of a cover-up was the most damaging aspect and has been strongly refuted by all parties.

Willerton told the hearing: "Tennis is not hiding behind any shield whatsoever. We are doing as much as we can to stop people committing corruption within the sport."

But he did say after some hesitation that he would be recommending to the review panel that the TIU has greater independence.

It is funded by the ATP, WTA, ITF and the four grand slam tournaments, with Willerton revealing the budget is only $2 million (£1.4m) a year - the winners of the US Open last year received $3.3m (£2.4m) each.

But he said a request to increase it had been granted and the number of staff at the unit will rise from six to eight.

Kermode backed the work of the TIU, and said: "The integrity of the sport is hugely important. I personally have zero tolerance for this. We want to eradicate it completely. We take it very seriously.

"Any allegations like this do cause immense damage to a sport's reputation, which is why we need to be on the front foot."

Kermode, who has taken a leading role on the issue, said he would support the reopening of old cases if there was sufficient evidence and admitted the sponsorship of tournaments by betting companies does need looking at.

Press Association Sport contributed to this report.