IRP tennis corruption report could provide clarity on one of sport's murkiest issues

Governing bodies around the world will this week be buried under an avalanche of paperwork. The Independent Review Panel’s report into corruption in tennis dropped yesterday, and it’s a big one, as the timescale (27 months) and budget (not far short of £20m) might suggest.

We are talking about 2000 pages of closely argued research, hedged around with non-disclosure agreements, because the public release of the document is not due until next Monday. Probably only a few dozen people will see it before then.

The timescale on this behemoth has been flexible, in the extreme. It was originally supposed to have been completed by the end of 2016, the year that began with a joint investigation by the BBC and the Buzzfeed website causing panic around the game via headlines about “match-fixing evidence that tennis has kept secret for years”.

Tennis’s very weakness was perhaps the most convincing argument against the theory of some grand conspiracy. When you look at the shocking mess that the authorities are making of the Davis Cup rebrand, it’s hard to conceive of them orchestrating a decade-long cover-up.

Still, that’s not to say that the whole problem has been efficiently dealt with. One area that is known to have attracted the attention of Adam Lewis QC – the man in charge of the IRP investigation – is the choice that tennis made in 2008 between two alternative versions of the Tennis Integrity Unit. One might be described as the “belt and braces” approach, the other as a relatively limited service. As you have probably guessed, the authorities preferred the “light-touch” option.

This decision is thought to have absorbed a good deal of the IRP’s time and criticism. Indeed, this is one reason why the whole process has taken so extraordinarily long.

Secret Service | Evert part of Simon Briggs’ weekly column

Since the precedent of a 1969 enquiry by the Department of Trade and Industry, any such report is legally obliged to give the targets of its censure the opportunity to respond before publication – a process known as “Maxwellisation”, because the target of that 1969 investigation was the late newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell.

In the case of the IRP, the 2008 decision on staffing and operating style has sparked a veritable paperstorm of toing and froing, delaying the publication date by many months.

The case can be argued either way. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s probably true that the TIU – which now has an operating staff of 17 – should have been instituted with six investigators rather than three. But the last ten years have developed everybody’s understanding of these issues. Those who were there can justifiably claim that, even if they made a poor call, they were acting in good faith at the time.

Once the basic principle has been established that tennis did not collude in hushing up corruption, such ancient history becomes of largely academic interest. The real question is “Where do we go from here?”

Lleyton Hewitt was the subject of some of the report’s research Credit: Heathcliff O’Malley

Does the IRP accept the argument – common within the game – that tennis is better off co-operating with bookmakers than trying to ban gambling altogether on lower-tier tournaments (which is where the bulk of the corruption is found)? And how does it believe that the Transition Tour – the new circuit that will replace Futures from next year – should be policed?

If you mention the Buzzfeed/BBC report now to anyone in tennis, they usually make a sour face. While it was deeply researched and cleverly packaged, some of its content has turned out to be questionable – including the headline claim that a grand-slam singles champion was often associated with irregular betting patterns. When this player turned out to be Lleyton Hewitt – a one-man anomaly who forged on into his mid-30s through sheer love of the game, despite a three-digit ranking and several bionic body parts – the report’s credibility took a hit.

But never mind the detail. Look at the impact. That investigation forced a major sport to throw its records open to experts like Lewis, and invest almost £20m in an open-ended debate on what has gone wrong and what should be done about it.

Kudos, then, to the original reporters. With any luck, the IRP will significantly enhance tennis’s understanding of this intractable issue. Perhaps a few other sports, which have thus far escaped such close scrutiny, might even pick up some tips.

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