The rise and fall of a match-fixing tennis prodigy
Karim Hossam was one of the best young tennis players in the world. He looked set to play at the biggest tournaments, with the top players of the game.
Instead he was sucked into one of the biggest match-fixing rings yet discovered in a sport riddled with corruption. The BBC’s Simon Cox and Paul Grant use confidential documents to tell the story of his downfall.
It was inside a modest hotel room in Tunisia in June 2017 that Karim Hossam’s tennis career started to unravel. Across from the 24-year-old sat two former British police detectives. They were investigators for the Tennis Integrity Unit, which probes corruption within the game, and they suspected Karim had been fixing matches. In a series of interviews over six months he revealed how four years earlier he had become a part of one of the biggest match-fixing rings in tennis.
The International Tennis Federation Futures tournament at Sharm el-Sheikh is a distant cousin to the glamour, money and crowds of Wimbledon or the French Open. Played at a small tennis club next to a shopping mall, there is a smattering of spectators and the prize money for the whole tournament is $15,000 (£11,500, Sh1.5 million) – about a quarter of the sum made by a first-round loser at Wimbledon.
Karim Hossam had already won the tournament four times when he arrived to compete there again in 2013. Still only 20, the young Egyptian player was the great hope for North African tennis.
As one of the best junior players in the world, hovering on the edge of the top 10, he had started to play in the big ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) tournaments with the stars of the sport. He’d played at the Australian Open and the French Open, but the ITF (International Tennis Federation) tournament at Sharm was one of the many around the world where thousands of lower-ranked players try to scrape a living.
Karim Hossam was preparing for a match when a player he didn’t know well approached him. “Do you want to lose the match and get $1,000 (£770)?” he asked. The same player had contacted Hossam months earlier, at the Qatar Open, asking if he wanted to lose the first set for $1,000. On that occasion he was facing one of the world’s best players, Richard Gasquet – then ranked ninth in the world, some 300 places above Hossam – and he replied: “I’m playing Gasquet, I’m not here to sell a match.”
But in Sharm el-Sheikh it was different. It didn’t really matter if he won or lost and after thinking it over Hossam decided to go ahead with it. He told the investigators, “I just wanted to try it because I never tried it… I thought this guy was actually like lying to me… I didn’t know that betting existed.” The player wasn’t lying, though, and after losing the match Hossam went with him to a local branch of Western Union to get his money.
The gamblers behind this would have made much more than $1,000, and would have bet on other matches too, often making multiple bets on one match. “Having that insider knowledge of people involved in match-fixing in a specific sport particularly tennis… you can really make some fairly decent money,” says Fred Lord, Director for Ant-Ccorruption at the International Centre of Sport Security in Qatar. “We’re talking figures around about half a million euros.”
What Karim Hossam didn’t realise was that he had sold his career for $1,000. Being found guilty of a single offence by the tennis authorities is punishable by a lifetime ban from the game.
‘TOLD MY FATHER’
Hossam couldn’t keep it to himself so he told his father, who had helped to finance his career. He told investigators his father “was really pissed and he was like, ‘You’re ruining your life'”.
After this first offence, Hossam said, he tried for a while to avoid doing it again. But he also thought that if he had more money it would be easier to advance his career. “I wanted to go play big tournaments, you know, like I was going to the US for camp or whatever and I needed money,” he said.
So he continued taking money to lose, and before long he was also acting as a fixer, the middleman between gamblers and players. Sometimes it involved losing a match, or on other occasions a single set. It depended what the gamblers wanted and what got them the best odds.
He spent the next four years helping to fix dozens of matches in Egypt, Tunisia and Nigeria, typically earning $200 for a $1,000 fix. A cache of confidential documents seen by the BBC shows how the young player arranged the fixes through Facebook messages with dozens of North African players. In May 2016 he contacts a player with an offer: “Bro. You lose first set then win the match. You get 2,500.” The figures were always in dollars.
When the other player agrees to this, Hossam makes sure he understands his instructions: “So you will lose the first set then win the match. Do you surely understand?” The player responds, “Score is not important. I just need to lose first set?”
He is reassured by Hossam: “Most important thing is you drop the set then win.” The player tells Hossam, “Hopefully it’s OK because I need the money.” They carry on messaging throughout the afternoon but there’s a hitch and the fix doesn’t go through.
On other occasions it runs more smoothly. In August 2016 he messages another player in the early hours of the morning: “One set for 3,000.” Intrigued by the offer, the player replies, “How much to lose?” and he is told, “Lose for 3,000 my friend.” In the event the player did lose.
The documents the BBC has seen implicate more than 20 players, most of them from North Africa, in either directly fixing matches or failing to tell the authorities when they were approached. Any player who is approached and asked to fix a match has to report it and failure to do so is an offence that can lead to a lengthy ban.
In June 2017 the tennis anti-corruption authorities finally caught up with him.
In his first interview with investigators he told them how he was drawn into fixing.
“I just couldn’t afford playing any more and like my dad was paying for me, and then my dad has to pay for my brother as well, and then I wasn’t getting any income,” he says, the transcript shows.
After the interview ends he messages his younger brother, Youssef, who is also a professional tennis player.
“They caught me in my room bro,” he writes. “And I was stupid I didn’t delete some things.”
Hossam tells his brother he is hopeful of escaping any tough sanctions by co-operating with the authorities. “I am telling them I want to work with them. Would be (expletive) great if that is possible. I travel and get money to catch all the fixers.”
That wasn’t how it turned out. Days after he was interviewed by the Tennis Integrity Unit, Karim Hossam was provisionally banned from playing tennis. That same day he messaged a fellow player telling him about the ban but vowing, “I am gonna bet even more now.”
By the time of his final interview, in January 2018, Karim Hossam says he has been reduced to coaching children. The investigators ask if he will give evidence against the player who first corrupted him.
“We feel very strongly that if he’s done that to you he’s probably done it to other people and he’s probably still doing it,” one of the investigators tells him. “So he’s somebody, I’m sure you would agree, you would want to get out of tennis, because he is a danger because he grooms young players… If it wasn’t for him you may never be where you are today.”
Karim had hoped there would be some benefit for him in co-operating with the Tennis Integrity Unit, and seems disappointed that he has got nothing out of it.
“I gave a lot of information. I didn’t really lie about anything, I was open,” he tells them.
“But receiving a lifetime ban in tennis, I mean I’ve been playing tennis for 17 years, I was only forced to do this under circumstances… So pretty much like I don’t see any like benefits from my side… I honestly don’t have any more evidence… I don’t have any more chats.”
BANNED FOR LIFE
In July 2018 Karim Hossam was banned for life. But the confidential files the BBC has seen show he continued to try to corrupt the sport.
In August 2018 he has a long conversation with a player to whom he offers $3,500 (Sh350,000) to lose a set by a specific score. In the end, word gets out the match is fixed and the gambler backs off. Karim Hossam suspects one of the players has talked. “My friend we need men not babies,” he tells him.
The BBC contacted Karim Hossam to ask him about these messages and his contact with other players but he didn’t respond.
The documents reveal one of the largest match-fixing rings in tennis ever discovered, implicating more than 20 mostly North African players. Last month police in Spain arrested 15 people in a match-fixing ring said to involve 28 Spanish players linked to an Armenian gambling ring. Armenian gamblers were also involved in a match-fixing ring uncovered by Belgian police in June 2018. The files the BBC has seen show that one of Karim’s contacts was an Armenian.
Most of the players in this match-fixing ring have not been sanctioned. And the player who first corrupted Karim Hossam – the one investigators wanted him to testify against – is still playing professional tennis.
The documents seen by the BBC have been sent to the Tennis Integrity Unit, and the whistleblower who contacted the BBC is critical of the unit’s response.
“The TIU are ineffective because their processes are inefficient and slow. They receive evidence about someone and their investigation is ended two years later,” he says.
“I had a player tell me he is definitely going to get a lifetime ban soon and is going to go out with a bang in the last couple of tournaments he is going to play. Why allow players this chance?”
The Tennis Integrity Unit said it was at the forefront of the fight against sporting corruption, and had successfully prosecuted 44 people in the last two years – 16 of whom were given lifetime bans. It added that it couldn’t comment on ongoing investigations as “public disclosure would inevitably alert suspects and allow credible evidence to be discarded or destroyed”.
In 2018 an independent review panel looked into the integrity of tennis after a BBC News and BuzzFeed investigation revealed suspected illegal betting. It said the Tennis Integrity Unit had a backlog of cases and that there was a “tsunami” of corruption within the sport.
The sport’s governing body, the International Tennis Federation, told the BBC: “We are committed to protecting the integrity of tennis and putting in place the necessary measures to do that”. But it conceded, “there is a significant amount of work to do.”