John McEnroe came to the defence yesterday of a 24-year-old Russian player who has been punished for failing to inform the sport's authorities that she had been asked to influence the result of matches.
The tennis integrity unit, which investigates allegations of betting-related corruption, fined Ekaterina Bychkova $5,000 (about £3,100) and banned her for 30 days. Without going into details, it said the world No 122 had "received a proposal to provide inside information and influence the outcome of matches in exchange for substantial compensation, which was not disclosed by Ms Bychkova until questioned by investigators". Following the investigation, an independent hearing "found no evidence that Ms Bychkova contrived or accepted any compensation to contrive the outcome or any other aspect of a tennis match."
McEnroe, who said that match-fixing was "a huge concern" for tennis, felt Bychkova's punishment would dissuade other players from being honest. "From what I understand, [she] was approached, said no, and just because she didn't report that – maybe she was afraid, I think that's a legitimate concern – then she's suspended," McEnroe told Australian Associated Press in Adelaide, where he is playing in an exhibition event.
He thought the rule obliging players to report such approaches made little sense. "Certainly, that should be followed up so that someone who is actually doing the right thing doesn't get penalised, as opposed to someone who does the wrong thing and gets away with it, potentially," McEnroe said. "It almost seems we're more worried about the gamblers than the athletes."
The London-based integrity unit was set up by the main governing bodies in tennis after Jeff Rees and Ben Gunn, two former Metropolitan Police officers, conducted a review of the sport. The unit's investigations have led to punishments for some little-known players for minor betting offences – under the sport's anti-corruption programme players and their associates are banned from any form of gambling on tennis – but this is believed to be the first suspension simply for failing to report an approach.
Bychkova made her debut on the main WTA tour in 2003. She has never gone beyond a semi-final on the tour or past the second round of a Grand Slam event and has played mostly on the lower-tier International Tennis Federation circuit. She has won $658,819 (about £408,000) in prize money over the course of her career.
Another Russian, Elena Dementieva, said she was also unaware of the requirement to inform the authorities, but a WTA spokesman said last night that players had been informed of this at a mandatory meeting in Miami last year.