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Save the young Indian tennis players from corruption: Enrico Piperno

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Piperno said there are less chances of fixing at the top level of tennis, where players are highly paid and less susceptible to bribery.

The tennis world was last week rocked by allegations of widespread match-fixing, just as the Australian Open, the season's first Grand Slam tournament, kicked off in Melbourne.

The BBC and BuzzFeed News, without taking any names, reported that 16 players ranked in the top 50 had been repeatedly flagged to the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) over suspicions they had thrown matches in the past decade – an allegation that has been rejected by tennis authorities.

The reports said the TIU, set up to watch illegal activities in the sport, failed to either act upon information that identified suspicious behaviour amongst players or impose any sanctions.

All of the players, including winners of Grand Slam titles, were allowed to continue competing, while eight were playing in the Australian Open, the media reports added. Three matches at Wimbledon had also fallen under suspicion.

However, the authorities rejected any suggestion that evidence was suppressed and defended the workings of the TIU, which was set up in 2008 and has landed 18 convictions, including six life bans.

The controversy is just the latest to hit the tainted sports world after claims of a doping cover-up shook athletics and multiple scandals engulfed football's governing body, FIFA.

However, just as we move ahead in the current season, one of India's best-known tennis coaches and a former national champion, Enrico Piperno, in an exclusive interview with IBNLive, said it is the second- and lower-level tournaments that are heavily vulnerable to match-fixing.

Piperno, who has been the coach of the Indian Davis Cup team from 1990-2000 and is currently the coach of the Indian Fed Cup team, said there are less chances of fixing at the top level of tennis, where players are highly paid and less susceptible to bribery.

"I am sure the lower-level tournaments are more vulnerable to fixing. At the end of the day, if someone is not making a living out of the sport, I am sure he can be vulnerable. There's always an element of being a human being, being a little greedy. I am not saying no," Piperno said.

"Possibly young players are vulnerable to fixing. I won't say it's not possible," he added.

From a successful player to a notable coach, Piperno has been close to the tennis court for more than three decades. He has spent over two decades on the ATP and WTA Tours travelling with Leander Paes (1990-1993), Mahesh Bhupathi (1997-2003) and also Sania Mirza till 2006 but the silver medallist at the 1982 New Delhi Asian Games said he never faced anything like that during his long career.

"I was travelling extensively from 1979 to 2006. I have been on the tour with Mahesh Bupathi travelling as coach for 8-9 years, with Leander Paes for three and a half years, Sania Mirza for more than one year. That is my coaching experience, besides that I have played competitive tennis for long, 20-25 years on the road travelling. I have never ever discussed nor heard any one discuss something like this.

"I have been to the main changing room at the Wimbledon every single day with Leander. I was around to all the other places at all the main events, changing rooms, dinner table, breakfast table, lounges, playing games with them. But it was never heard," he said.

Piperno said he has personally never encountered a situation where he has been asked to throw a match.

"I have never experienced anything like this in my life. No one has ever approached me to throw a match,” he said.

"As a sportsman, we all believe in results and integrity. As far as I know, I have never heard of match-fixing in my sport of tennis. When this came out in papers, that was the first time I heard about it. In my playing days, I have played at a level where I was in top 200-300 rank myself. There could have been opportunities for people to get to me to throw matches but no one ever approached me. It came as a jolt out of the blue for someone like me," he said.

Like most of the other top-ranked tennis players, namely Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Serena Williams – who have vehemently denied possible match-fixing claims, Piperno said if players are suspected of corruption, he wants names.

"These are all allegations. Where are the names? I would like to hear some names. All the Indian players that I came in contact with, the ones I have played with and the others whom I have coached, this topic never ever came up. No question of Indian players that I know have ever done this sort of a thing. I don't think the players would like to risk their careers by doing something like this," he said.

Piperno, who has a distinction of having been ranked No. 1 in India in the AITA ranking list on five separate occasions in the 1980s, however, said that since young players are vulnerable to falling into fixers' trap, the governing body of tennis in India should come up with special mechanisms to educate the coaches and players so that they don't fall prey.

"There's always that possibility of youngsters little tempted to it. So the AITA can come with up with something like this [educating youngsters] and make sure it never happens or any youngster going that way.

"I feel AITA should counsel both players and coaches. There definitely should be counselling sessions and it should make the experts talk to them and tell them the dangers of it. I think counselling would be a very important part for AITA as we go forward. The kids must be told very early in their careers that this is the wrong path to go as they grow. If it’s available to them outside, AITA needs to make sure that they don't fall into that trap because once they fall into the trap, it's very difficult to get out of it," he concluded.