Ex-Mafia fixer's offer of help the sport could not refuse

Mob man behind gambling scandals now teaches players about his dangerous game

Michael Franzese claims little insight into the secretive detective work of the tennis authorities as they continue to clean up the sport but the ex-New York mafia boss, a former match-fixer in US sport, has worked on the Association of Tennis Professional's education programme to warn players of the dangers of gambling, and has no doubt that fixing goes on.

"I was asked back in 2006 to address the players," he said, talking to The Independent at the recent Play the Game conference in Coventry. "I've had a lot of consultation with the ATP. They're concerned about the problem and they are as proactive as they can be. People would be naive to think that gambling, fixing and attempted fixing isn't happening in tennis. Players told me stories of being approached. It's happened. It still does.

"After I spoke [to the players] I got emails and telephone calls, they confided in me. I spoke via an interpreter to some Russians. I don't know how much attention they were paying but [another player] said to me they were the ones that needed to because they're the most guilty. That's exactly what I was told."

Franzese, 58, is the son of the notorious John "Sonny" Franzese, a key figure for years in the Colombo family, one of New York's five Mob clans. Sonny was a ruthless hitman, and has spent 32 years in prison since 1970. Now 92 and out on bail, he is the oldest parolee in the US.

Michael followed in father's footsteps in his twenties and made hundreds of millions of dollars, primarily from bootlegging, racketeering and tax scams, with a healthy sideline in match-fixing, mainly on NBA basketball games and NFL football.

"We'd prey on athletes' weaknesses," he said. "We'd find a player who gambled, extend him credit until he's far out of his depth – hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then we'd offer an easy way to repay. It was all about shaving points."

In US sports betting, the most popular gamble is "the spread". Franzese and his bookies would target players in teams that were strong favourites, and simply "request" the winning margin was lower than expected. In such details huge profits lay.

His extraordinary life story took a twist after an eight-year prison term and after falling in love with a girl (now his wife of many years) who wanted him to go straight. He left the Mafia, and lived to tell the tale by never grassing. He had a contract on his head, however, and still does.

"I was in that life for 17 years so I took a lot of precautions when I left it behind me, although I never co-operated [with the police], and never entered a witness protection programme. When I was in jail, they kept me in lockdown. I was in the hole for three years, they wouldn't let me out on the yard for my own safety. It was tough for years after I came out, effectively on the run for our safety."

How is he still alive? "I outlasted just about everybody in my life [who'd want me dead]. They're either dead or in prison for the rest of their lives. And I didn't testify against anyone."

The NBA and NFL have used Franzese's services to warn athletes about corruption for many years. He makes a living from public speaking and writing, and his latest book I'll Make You an Offer You Can't Refuse: Insider Business Tips from a Former Mob Boss is out now.

Cause for concern: Tennis matches under suspicion

A number of tennis matches with "unusual betting" are understood to be among the ATP's 45-plus games "of concern" since 2002. The first two cases listed below were among those cited by the Lawn Tennis Association as examples of suspicious matches in a response paper to the Gambling Commission:

2003 Y Kafelnikov (Rus) v F Vicente (Sp) Lyons, France: Betting stopped six hours before the start of the match after a "worldwide" gamble on underdog Vicente, who had lost his 11 previous matches. He won.

2003 F Lopez (Sp) v J Nieminen (Fin) Long Island, NY: The ATP was alerted to irregular betting after an unusually large sum was placed on Nieminen. Lopez retired injured in the second set.

The following matches involved irregular betting on Betfair:

2007 F Volandri (It) v F Luzzi (It) Bastad, Sweden: A set and break down, Volandri suddenly became strong favourite to win. He did, in three.

2006 J Benneteau (Fr) v S Roitman (Arg) Moscow: A pre-match flood of cash saw Benneteau's odds move from 1-3 to 1-33. He won 6-3, 6-0.

2006 N Almagro (Arg) v M V Arguello (Arg) Palermo, Italy: Odds on Almagro to win in two sets crashed before the match to an unusual 1-5. He won 6-2, 6-2.

2006 F Volandri (It) v S Vagnozzi (It) Bucharest: Volandri, much higher ranked, was expected to win easily. A lot of money on Betfair on a 2-1 scoreline pushed the odds on that from 7-2 to odds-on. Volandri won in three.

NB: No player has ever been convicted of match-fixing. A number have been banned for breaking tennis's ban on betting by players, including four Italians: Luzzi, Alessio Di Mauro, Daniele Bracciali and Potito Starace.

Nick Harris

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