The Long Shot: Why Can’t US Tennis Fans Make a Buck Off the Open?

In England, any Tom, Dick, or Prince Harry can walk up to a window and hand over a stack of cash to a bookie for 11/2 odds on Stanislas Wawrinka. Betting on tennis is a treasured pastime that’s been part of British culture since, “forever!” says Graeme Sharpe, Media Relations Director of William Hill, a venerable betting house in London.

Over the course of the Wimbledon fortnight each year, gamblers can bet on anything from the final outcome of the men’s singles event to the rain on Center Court. It’s a multi-million dollar industry, yet nothing of the sort exits in New York—the greatest city in the world. So how come the British are so comfortable with gambling on tennis, whereas, in the United States the issue is taboo?

“Because it’s legal,” for one thing, says hall-of-fame tennis journalist, Bud Collins. “It’s a perfectly respectable thing!”

Americans are down-right squeamish about the subject, although the pretense seems to disappear when it comes to horse racing and lottery tickets, or football and basketball betting in legal gambling zones, like Las Vegas and Indian reservations. Could it be that tennis simply doesn’t occupy the same place in the national sports zeitgeist, the way, say, college men’s basketball does every March?

Obviously, there's a major conflict of interest for the players competing in any given tournament. All the major governing bodies of pro tennis (the ATP and WTA tours, the ITF and USTA, etc.) enforce strict zero tolerance laws regarding players gambling inclinations, a policy that has the support of 16-time Grand Slam champion, Roger Federer. The Swiss former #1 says, while he knows many fans bet on players around the world, he’s happier that it’s lower-key in the U.S.

“In England, they sometimes ask us or tell us what we think about the odds and stuff,” says Federer. “I prefer it when it's not so much out there. We don't like to see it in our game, especially from the player and media side and the entourage.”

Indeed, gone are the days when American icon, and notorious gambler, Bobby Riggs (best remembered for his loss to Billie Jean King in the 1973 classic "Battle of the Sexes") could triple his earnings for the year by betting on his own results. Although Riggs, in his autobiography, swears he never bet on himself to lose, therein lies the controversial dilemma clouding the issue.

This past Wimbledon, 12 players competing in the men's singles draw were placed on a "watch list" due to previous involvement in matches where betting and match-fixing were suspected. Most of the list is composed of smaller-time players. The Independent, a well respected UK blog, ran an exclusive during Wimbledon that reported an investigation was underway into a first-round match between Spain's Oscar Hernandez and Austria's Daniel Koellerer at the Ordina Open in the Netherlands.

To help combat the “pandemic,” the governing bodies of pro tennis founded the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) in 2008 to monitor suspicious activity of the sort. Perhaps the biggest name in tennis under the vigilant eye of the TIU is Nikolay Davydenko of Russia, the country of origin most suspected of corruption.

In truth, gambling can become a serious affliction, an addiction that has ruined countless lives. It’s a legitimate illness, right up there with alcoholism, infidelity and other behavioral pathologies. But should a few bad apples spoil the fruits of a bet for everyone? I mean, no one's closing down the betting houses in London. And could one point to a better symbol of purity in sport than Wimbledon? Especially in this tainted era of performance-enhancing drugs? Indeed, Wimbledon remains the ultimate pillar of tennis virtue, the mecca of the game. Why, then, not let New Yorkers in on the racket?

Could betting on tennis actually benefit others?

In Kidlington, Oxfordshire, the BBC reported earlier this year that a man by the name of Nicholas Newlife left his entire estate when he died in 2009—which included a series of bets placed on Roger Federer, Andy Roddick and cricketer Ramnaresh Sarwan—to Oxfam, the leading UK charity to fight global poverty.

The first bet, placed in 2000 with bookmakers William Hill, was a £250, 66/1 long shot that Swiss Federer would win at least 14 grand slam titles before 2020. The gamble resulted in a £16,750 payday to the altruistic charity. Unfortunately for Oxfam, Newlife missed the opportunity to tack on an addition £100,000 after Federer failed to win Wimbledon this year.

Admittedly, this happy-ending story is a betting anomaly, not the norm. Even the most seasoned gamblers usually admit they mostly lose. But that doesn’t stop the Brits!

The might of the tennis gaming industry in Britain borders on shocking. In fact, it’s considered a noble trade. The revenue generated during Wimbledon totals eight figures at William Hill alone. “We are a perfectly respectable, well established and regulated business, subject to the same kind of taxes as any other business,” says Sharpe of William Hill.

Gamblers can place bets online with the bookmaker from all around the world, and in Great Britain, bets can be placed at any one of their 2300 High Street shops, so long as you’re not American.

“We will not take bets from potential clients with U.S. addresses,” says Sharpe. “Your government does not want U.S. citizens to bet with foreign online bookmakers. We abide by that decision and do not take bets from those with U.S. addresses.”

In the USTA media center at the U.S. Open, located at the base of Arthur Ashe Stadium, I attempted to visit William Hill online to see what all the fuss was about. To my surprise, my web browser was blocked from accessing the site by the USTA’s server. When I asked USTA Communications Director, Chris Widmaier why I couldn’t check out the British site, he reiterated the USTA’s zero-tolerance policy with respect to gambling on tennis, especially on the U.S. Open premises.

Needless to say, I used my computer at home to get the skinny on the odds. Frankly, I was a bit overwhelmed by the countless ways I could bet on tennis. It took a while to wrap my puritanical mind around the seemingly thriving industry. One can make all sorts of tennis wagers, including on the U.S. Open.

For example, in the match-up between Paul-Henri Mathieu vs. Roger Federer this past Saturday, a gambler could place a 10/1 bet on Mathieu, meaning the odds makers gave the Frenchman a 9.09 percent chance of upsetting Federer. So if Mathieu miraculously pulled-off the feat, those who bet against the Swiss, could stand to make some money. Bets in favor of the world no. 2 would net you very little, however. The odds of Federer winning were 1/33. That’s a 97.08 percent probability that Federer wouldn’t lose.

Compare Federer’s stakes to the highly anticipated match that preceded his Mathieu thrashing between American, upstart Beatrice Capra and Maria Sharapova. A gamer could roll the dice 16/1 on Capra (a 5.88 percent chance of winning) or 1/100 on Sharapova (99 percent certain to win). But that’s not all you can bet on!

One can dabble in set and tie break markets as well. For instance, one could have bet on possible first set, game 7 outcomes. In the Capra/Sharapova match, odds on the game totaling under 6 points were: 13/10, exactly 6 points: 15/8, over 6 points: 15/8. Odds of the first set going to a tie breaker were: 40/1 – Yes; 1/1000 – No. Translation: an ice cube’s chance in Haiti.

In addition to head-to-head wagers, one can put money on “bundled” specials. Hill’s Sunday Men’s Bet Bundle threw Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, David Ferrer, David Nalbandian and Sam Querrey all into a pot to win at 9/4 odds. That’s just over a 30 percent chance of success, and if you took it, you lost.

“I didn't even know it existed until a few years ago,” professes Federer about the prospects of tennis gambling. “I know it's naïve, but, honestly, I have no clue how much is going on.”

But regardless of its reach throughout the rest of the world, as it stands now, if you want to bet on tennis in the U.S., you’ll have to go to Vegas.

Celena Haas, Director of Public Relations for Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, says the American gaming giant accepts limited tennis wagers. “Usually just major events like [the] French Open, U.S. Open, Australia Open, Wimbledon,” says Haas.

For a state struggling to balance its budget, perhaps it might be worth New York Gov.David Paterson’s time in his waning days in office, to commission a blue-ribbon panel to look into the potential fiscal gains of passing a two week gaming holiday during the U.S. Open.

If it were legal, would William Hill ever consider opening up shop in the Big Apple?

“We would prefer to be able to take online bets from U.S. clients,” says Sharpe, “but might well consider a branch in Times Square, given the opportunity. Why should Americans be deprived of the top quality betting service readily available to Brits?”

Well put.

Below is a small sample of odds to win this year’s U.S. Open, as of Tuesday, September 7, 2010, 1:38 PM, courtesy of William Hill:

Kim Clijsters – 1/5

Francesca Schiavone – 7/4

Samantha Stosur – 10/3 (this is where the money can be made)


As for world #1 Rafael Nadal: How many sets will he need to win?

Straight Sets – 4/11

Three sets to one – 10/3

Five sets – 9/1