Russian tennis player Yana Sizikova arrested at French Open in match-fixing investigation

This drama-filled French Open took another unexpected turn as a match-fixing storm broke over Paris.

The newspaper Le Parisien reported that Yana Sizikova, a Russian doubles specialist, had been arrested on-site at Roland-Garros on Thursday. This could have been a development in a long-standing investigation, as Sizikova had been involved in a match that attracted irregular betting patterns during last year’s tournament.

In October, the German newspaper Welt reported that the French police’s Central Service of Races and Games was looking into that contest. Hundreds of thousands of euros had reportedly been staked on one game in the second set.

On Thursday, the arrest is understood to have taken place as Sizikova was leaving her massage session in the player complex at Roland-Garros after a first-round defeat. Sizikova was playing with a different team-mate this year – compatriot Ekaterina Alexandrova. They had just lost 6-1, 6-1 to the Australian duo of Storm Sanders and Ajla Tomljanovic.

Le Parisien also reported that the police had searched Sizikova’s hotel room, and that a member of tournament staff had tried to prevent the arrest from taking place. The local prosecutor’s office later confirmed that the arrest had been made in connection with alleged “sports corruption” and “organised gang fraud”.

The game that drew such attention arrived at 2-2 in the second set of last year’s doubles match, which featured Sizikova and the American Madison Brengle against the Romanian pair of Andreea Mitu and Patricia Maria Tig. The game lasted only two minutes and consisted of four points. The first and last were double faults.

The second was a four-shot rally in which Sizikova served, then went down into a deep squat position to play her next shot, after which she was unable to reach the next ball. The third point was a less remarkable five-shot rally that the Romanians finished off with a sharp volley. Tig and Mitu went on to win in straight sets. The Tennis Integrity Unit declined to comment at the time, as is its consistent policy on what it calls “operational matters”.

This was the only suspicious betting alert to have been triggered at a grand slam in the 2020 season. Sizikova was released from custody on Friday night. Frederic Belot, her lawyer, said she had contacted tennis authorities last year and that she provided them with an explanation, which he says “satisfied” them.

He added: “It is therefore serenely and in the best possible state of mind that Yana Sizikova went to Paris a week ago to play in the 2021 French Open women’s doubles tournament. She and her father were extremely shocked when she was arrested.” Shamil Tarpischev, president of the Russian Tennis Federation, told the RIA news agency that he had been informed of Sizikova’s detention.

“We have not received any documents [regarding the case], so it’s difficult to make an assessment of what has happened,” he said. Sizikova, 26, is now ranked No  101 in doubles but a lowly No 765 in singles. According to the WTA website, her career prize money stands at $206,617 (£146,000), which is a modest return for more than 11 years of professional tennis.

Although suspicious betting patterns crop up with reasonable regularity – the TIU reported 23 match alerts in the first quarter of 2021 – it is unusual for investigations to be publicly reported as quickly as this one was, with the first articles on the subject appearing before the end of the 2020 French Open.

What made the difference here is that police forces and other state authorities have the option to reveal when they are looking into these sorts of cases, whereas the TIU is unable to comment at all until the process has been carried all the way through to a conviction. The TIU has served out suspensions and life bans to seven players in the past two months, but these tend not to be names that many have heard of. When match-fixing occurs, it usually involves players who cannot afford to make a living on the tour.

Nicolas Kicker, the Argentine who was banned in 2018, is a rare example of a top-100 professional who was found guilty. Nevertheless, match-fixing has become a significant presence at the lower levels of the game since Futures tournaments – which pay derisory prize money – began to live-stream their scores to bookmakers in 2014. This underworld achieved greater visibility when a joint investigation by the BBC and BuzzFeed overshadowed the start of the 2016 Australian Open, even if some of the claims included therein were questionable.

The tennis world then commissioned a hugely expensive report into the corruption problem from an independent review panel headed by Adam Lewis, the experienced British QC. Unveiling the report in April 2018, after running up a bill of about £20 million over two years of research, Lewis told reporters that tennis provided “a lamentably fertile breeding ground for breaches of integrity”.

He also spoke of a “tsunami of corruption”, and revealed that tennis – according to the European Sports Security Association – was then responsible for three times as many suspicious betting alerts as every other sport put together.