Behind the Bets

Joni Mitchell might've called him a free man in Paris. Bettors might prefer "Dead man walking." Getty Images

Ten years ago, at just about this time, I called Alan Boston in Vegas and left him a voicemail that went something like this (abridged version): "Hey Alan, Chad Millman from ESPN The Magazine calling. I want to do a book about wise guys, you in?"

A couple weeks later I got a message back (abridged version): "I don't know, maybe," Boston said. "Call me and we'll talk about it. But not later today. I got $1,000 on Andre Agassi to win the French Open at 40-1, and he's in the finals."

Here's what happened next (abridged version): Agassi won his tourney. Boston won his $40,000. I wrote The Odds.

In the ten years since, how much has been wagered on the big-time tennis events? Put it this way: The Nevada Gaming Commission doesn't even track the number year by year because it's so small.

"Tennis makes up about one-tenth of one percent of our take," says Lucky's bookmaking boss Jimmy Vaccaro. "The last big golf major we probably had $100,000 worth of bets. In tennis, we might have written two big tickets."

Tennis' lack of popularity amongst the American bettoratti is no surprise, really. For starters, the biggest sports gambling holidays -- the Super Bowl, the NCAA tourney -- are must see TV. People, at least the degenerates I know, plan vacations around watching those events in Vegas sports books.

But Wimbledon? Doesn't exactly reel in the whales. "Seriously, it's the nuts as an event," says Boston. "But who even knows when it's on?"

Here's another reason that helps explain why golf gets traction, something I call "The Bubbe Theory." My Bubbe is pushing 95 and has cataracts so bad that, to her, even the most crystalline Chicago day is mostly cloudy. But she still listens to the Cubs games, and she still calls me in a fit if she disagrees with something Rick Telander writes in the Chicago Sun Times. She's a sports fan. If she doesn't know you, you're just filling a niche. And niche players, even historically good ones like Roger and Raf, don't drive betting volume. Only the highest profile names attract square money, which inflates wagering totals like a shot of saline to the lips. Bubbe, and the public, loved Agassi, tennis' last cross-the-rubicon, mainstream draw. She also has a crush on Tiger. She's given me standing orders to put a sawbuck on the big cat whenever I walk through a sports book (or mistakenly tap into one via my Internet machine.) That explains why the Masters is getting $100K in action at some books while the four tennis majors might not get that combined this year.

This isn't a case of tennis being a difficult sport to bet. In fact, in Europe, it's probably the second most popular sport for gambling after soccer. Granted, as the WSJ wrote last week and The Mag's Shaun Assael examined in even greater depth last year, that might be because gamblers across the pond see it as an easy game to fix. But it could also be because, over there it holds the kind of sway the big two do over here.

Street corners in Spain are peppered with public courts and kids doing their best Raffy impressions. In some war torn parts of Eastern Europe poverty-stricken kids view tennis as an escape route, like football or basketball here. A couple years ago The Mag's Lindsay Berra wrote a great piece about Belgrade's Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic and Novak Djokovic. They learned the game as kids while bombs were raining down on their homeland. They practiced in drained swimming pools. Not exactly Nick Bolletierri conditions.

In the United States, casual fans think tennis is played four times a year. But on the tightly packed European continent, national interest in homegrown talent runs deep every weekend. Of the ATP's current top 20 players, only two, Andy Roddick and James Blake, are American. Fourteen are from Europe, representing six different countries.

No wonder fans from Lisbon to Bhudapest get jacked up for the net game, whether it's Wimbledon or a low-level tourney like the Estoril Open in Portugal (congrats to Spain's Albert Montanes for winning that one, btw). Chances are good that someone representing their flag will not only be playing, but have a shot at winning.

And that's all any bettor can ask for.

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Chad Millman is a Senior Deputy Editor at ESPN The Magazine, and once wrote a book called The Odds. His column takes a close look at the culture surrounding the bet.