The man who built the biggest match-fixing ring in professional tennis

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Game, Set, Fix: This is part one of a two-part series about a match-fixing ring in professional tennis. Read part two here.

BRUSSELS

On the morning of his arrest, Grigor Sargsyan was still fixing matches. Four cellphones buzzed on his nightstand with calls and messages from around the world.

Sargsyan was sprawled on a bed in his parents’ apartment, making deals between snatches of sleep. It was 3 a.m. in Brussels, which meant it was 8 a.m. in Thailand. The W25 Hua Hin tournament was about to start.

Sargsyan was negotiating with professional tennis players preparing for their matches, athletes he had assiduously recruited over years. He needed them to throw a game or a set — or even just a point — so he and a global network of associates could place bets on the outcomes.

That’s how Sargsyan had become rich. As gambling on tennis exploded into a $50 billion industry, he had infiltrated the sport, paying pros more to lose matches, or parts of matches, than they could make by winning tournaments.

Sargsyan had crisscrossed the globe building his roster, which had grown to include more than 180 professional players across five continents. It was one of the biggest match-fixing rings in modern sports, large enough to earn Sargsyan a nickname whispered throughout the tennis world: the Maestro.

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Grigor Sargsyan on his way to the criminal court of Oudenaarde, Belgium, on April 27, 2023. (Sebastien Van Malleghem for The Washington Post)

This Washington Post investigation of Sargsyan’s criminal enterprise, and how the changing nature of gambling has corrupted tennis, is based on dozens of interviews with players, coaches, investigators, tennis officials and match fixers. The Post obtained tens of thousands of Sargsyan’s text messages, hundreds of pages of internal European law-enforcement documents, and the interrogation transcripts of players.

By the time he was communicating with the players in Thailand, Sargsyan had honed his tactics. He had learned to nurture the ones who were nervous. He knew when to be businesslike and direct, communicating his offers like an auctioneer.

That was Sargsyan’s approach on the night in June 2018 that would be his last as a match fixer. He explained to Aleksandrina Naydenova, a Bulgarian player struggling to break into the world’s top 200, that she could choose how severely she wanted to tank a set. He sent the texts in English:

If she lost her first service game, she would make 1,000 euros, he wrote. If she lost the second one, she would make 1,200 euros. It didn’t matter if she won the match, only that she lost those games.

Naydenova seemed willing.

“Give me some time to confirm,” she wrote.

As Sargsyan waited, a Belgian police SWAT team was on its way to his parents’ house. The team had been planning the raid for months, the culmination of a two-year investigation that spanned Western Europe.

Sargsyan placed the phone on his bedside table next to the others he used to message players and associates. He sprawled on his mattress, trying not to fall asleep. Then, from downstairs, he heard hushed voices speaking over walkie-talkies. He cracked open the door to his room and saw several police officers and a Belgian Malinois. The officers spotted their target: a short, chubby man in pajamas. They sprinted up the stairs and into Sargsyan’s room.

Sargsyan lunged for his phones, but the officers got to them first. They put him in handcuffs and listed the charges against him: money laundering and fraud.

“I know what this is about,” Sargsyan said.

The information on his devices would provide a remarkable window into what has become the world’s most manipulated sport, according to betting regulators. Thousands of texts, gambling receipts and bank transfers laid out Sargsyan’s ascent in remarkable detail, showing how an Armenian immigrant in Belgium with no background in tennis had managed to corrupt a sport with a refined, moneyed image.

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Sargsyan described himself as a kind of Robin Hood, a patron who flouted the law and the ethics of tennis to reimburse its poorest players. The bulk of the sport’s 1,300 tournaments are far-flung and offer little prize money. Some are so small that they are held on high school courts, paying winners as little as $2,352. And yet those same obscure matches, a long way from the luster of Wimbledon, have become vehicles for billions of dollars in gambling.

When he met recruits, Sargsyan introduced himself as a “sponsor” and a lifelong fan of the sport. He played down the illegality of match-fixing, wondering aloud how something so easy could be classified as a crime.

“It was my entire life,” said Sargsyan, 33, during interviews conducted over 10 hours in which he described his criminal enterprise.

As investigators got closer to arresting him, they concluded that Sargsyan was working on behalf of a transnational criminal syndicate based in Armenia. He was sending millions of dollars to a man in the country’s capital, Yerevan.

The Sargsyan investigation would lead tennis officials to issue a string of lifetime bans and suspensions from the sport. But even as they attempted to purge his network from the tour, more match-fixing alerts poured in.

When it came time to prosecute Sargsyan this spring, an attorney for professional tennis, Mathieu Baert, described the scale of the network to a Belgian courtroom.

“One of the largest match-fixing files ever to surface in the world,” Baert said in his opening statement.

He told the judge about the trove of evidence found on Sargsyan’s phones. There was more information that eluded investigators, on devices that Sargsyan had used and discarded; his story pointed to a larger problem facing the sport.

“The current results are, thus, the tip of the iceberg,” Baert said.

II

By 2016, players began whispering about a man known as the Maestro. He went by other names, too: Gregory, Greg, GG and TonTon. Some players knew him as Ragnar, after the Viking warrior.

He would appear, out of nowhere, at a tournament in Valencia, Spain, speaking Spanish, ferrying players to the fanciest restaurant in the city in his Jaguar. Then he was on the sidelines of a tournament in Belgium, speaking perfect Russian. He appeared at a Berlin nightclub with German players. He made reservations at an exclusive restaurant in the South of France with a well-known coach from the United States.

He bought diamond rings for players’ wives. He paid for flights. He handed out cellphones and the keys to an empty Brussels apartment. Players spoke of his charm, his seemingly endless supply of cash, his ability to shift among five languages. It was as if he strolled out of a European country club and was suddenly a fixture at professional tennis matches.

“Everyone in the tennis world knows that Maestro does match-fixing,” Mick Lescure, a former French pro who collaborated with Sargsyan, told French police in 2019, according to a transcript of the interrogation. “He could make it so that two opponents playing each other are both working for him.”

But none of the players knew much about the Maestro. Very few even knew his real name.

Grigor Sargsyan was born in 1990 in Armavir, Armenia, near the border with Turkey. He came to Brussels when he was 9. His parents cleaned houses and worked in construction. They lived in Saint-Josse, the city’s poorest neighborhood and an arrival point for migrants from around the world.

Sargsyan was struck by the wealth and power that lay only a short walk from Saint-Josse. It was less than two miles from the European Parliament and some of the city’s most glamorous residences. He and his friends slipped into fancy grocery stores, stealing caviar, lobster and champagne and fleeing with their hands full.

On the weekends, Sargsyan found a place in the city’s competitive chess scene, where his life in Saint-Josse felt like a skin he could shed. He showed up in baggy shorts and a T-shirt and rose through the ranks. At 13, after winning a local tournament, he played against Anatoly Karpov, the former world chess champion.

Sargsyan liked the feeling of control chess gave him, he said, the way he could bend the game to his mind. It was, for a while, the thing that made him feel most powerful.

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Sargsyan, then 13, plays a match against former chess world champion Anatoly Karpov in 2002 in Brussels. (Family photo)

Then, one day during a game, Sargsyan felt a seed of doubt. He was considering his next move when the stakes suddenly felt overwhelming. One wrong move and he was done, his opponent ready to destroy him. It was a feeling that began to surface almost every time he played: His brain froze, as if a synapse had misfired.

“I became paranoid. You start to think, ‘Everyone is trying to hurt and trap me,’” he said.

At 16, Sargsyan quit chess forever.

Instead, he took to walking aimlessly through the streets of Brussels. Once, he passed a betting office where the French Open was playing on television. It was the first time he’d ever watched a tennis match; he was transfixed. When his high school required students to sign up for a sport, Sargsyan chose tennis.

His Armenian friends in Saint-Josse joked that he was trying too hard to assimilate. His French had become impeccable. He dreamed of becoming a powerful lawyer. Now he was playing a sport in which even the scoring system seemed designed to obfuscate.

But when he returned to his neighborhood from tennis practice, Sargsyan would drop his academic French. He wanted to prove his street smarts however he could; in high school, he was caught stealing a live chicken.

“I could play two different characters,” Sargsyan said.

By graduation, his friends who had once stolen lobsters and caviar were fixtures at the neighborhood bookmaker. They fell rapidly into debt by betting on soccer, Sargsyan said, their conversations revolving around their most recent wagers.

“It was all they talked about. They were on their phones constantly checking scores, checking odds,” he said.

What about tennis? he wondered. Sargsyan learned that you could now bet on thousands of obscure matches around the world. Bookmakers were promoting wagers on tournaments at the margins of the sport. In some cases, the winners of these Futures or Challengers tournaments earned barely enough to pay for their hotel rooms. A poor player, he thought, could be a corruptible one.

“It was like I put my finger on the weakness,” he said.

Sargsyan poured over the tour schedules, the hundreds of tournaments in cities so small that he hadn’t heard of them, with the same journeymen lugging their own gear from one country to the next. Like him, these players lived on the border between poverty and wealth. Sargsyan thought: What would they be willing to do for a few thousand dollars?

“I needed to try,” he said.

III

When most people watch a tennis match, they don’t see a financial instrument. They see a display of pure athleticism: players returning serves at 130 miles per hour, an alchemy of power and control.

But Sargsyan learned that almost every professional tennis match in the world now serves a second purpose, as a vehicle for gambling. By 2014, you could go online or walk into a bookmaker’s shop and bet on tens of thousands of matches a year across 65 countries. He learned that a sport that telegraphed its aristocratic bona fides — “a gentleman’s game” — was an oddly welcoming place to commit fraud.

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Sargsyan was part of a great tradition of tennis gamblers, a pastime nearly as old as the sport itself. For decades, they placed wagers on major tournaments, like the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. Bobby Riggs, the U.S. singles champion in the 1930s and ’40s, was known to bet on his own matches. “I’ve got to have a bet going in order to play my best,” Riggs wrote in his 1973 memoir, “Court Hustler.”

But Sargsyan could tell tennis gambling was about to enter a new era. Widespread internet access and liberalized gambling laws made it possible to place bets on low-level tournaments in distant cities. You could bet on anything: a point, a game, a set.

Professional tennis is divided into three tours: the International Tennis Federation (ITF), covering the lowest tier of competition, and the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP Tour) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which host the sport’s most elite matches and the mid-level Challenger series. The ITF and Challenger tournaments are pipelines for young talent and way stations for aging players struggling to stay in the sport. The tours hold more than 60,000 matches a year in cities from Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, to Aktobe, Kazakhstan, to Toulouse, France.

Even as players complained about not making a sustainable income, the ITF invited wagers on its obscure matches, signing a five-year, $70 million deal with Swiss data company Sportradar in 2016 that gave gamblers access to live updates on non-televised matches. That information allowed people like Sargsyan to place real-time bets, even though they couldn’t watch the matches.

In the years following the Sportradar deal, gambling on tennis soared. Between 2016 and 2022, wagers surged more than 30 percent to $50 billion; by 2018, more than a quarter of that total was bet on the sport’s lowest-level matches, according to bookmaker data.

“Whilst these deals have generated considerable funds for the sport, they have also greatly expanded the available markets for betting on the lowest levels of professional tennis,” said an independent review on corruption in tennis commissioned by the professional federations in 2018. It said the deal was undertaken with “insufficient diligence.”

But in 2021, the ITF extended its Sportradar deal for three years, despite earlier concerns from the review board. This March, the ATP Tour signed a similar deal with Sportradar, covering both the world’s top tournaments and mid-level Challenger events, with the latter having already proved vulnerable to match fixers, including Sargsyan.

The ITF says the probability of a match being fixed fell to 0.1 percent in 2022, partly because of the creation of the International Tennis Integrity Agency, which the federation helps fund. Tennis officials argue that providing approved data to gamblers prevents wagers from being placed on distorted or fabricated scorekeeping.

Deals like the Sportradar one are “crucial to integrity protection,” Stuart Miller, the ITF’s senior executive director, said in a statement. “Unofficial data presents a greater integrity risk, including supply to unlicensed betting operators over which there is little oversight.”

Andreas Krannich, Sportradar’s executive vice president, said in a statement that the company’s transmission of match data “is an important measure to safeguard integrity to minimize the risk of a black market because the demand is covered and the event is monitored.”

The ATP did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Tennis now ranks third among the most wagered-on sports in the world, after soccer and basketball. In part because of the game’s global footprint, more money is bet on tennis than on American football and baseball combined, according to the International Betting Integrity Association.

Even the most elite tennis players have been swarmed with offers from match fixers. Novak Djokovic, one of the top men’s players in the world, said he was once offered $200,000 to lose a first-round match in Russia.

Law enforcement agencies around the world have grown increasingly concerned about the link between sports gambling and organized crime. The FBI and Interpol have each formed units to fight match-fixing. The United Nations has gotten involved, calling organized crime “a major and growing threat to sport.”

The professional tennis tour receives roughly 100 match-fixing alerts a year from betting regulators who watch for patterns of suspicious wagers. That’s more alerts than for any other sport — even with matches slipping under the radar, including many of the hundreds that Sargsyan fixed.

Since 2022, tennis officials have banned or suspended 40 players for match-fixing. But dismantling an entire network has proved enormously difficult.

The Sargsyan case, when it emerged, offered rare proof of how entrenched organized crime has become on the tour.

IV

It started with $350. At the time, it was most of Sargsyan’s savings.

He put the money in his wallet and climbed into a friend’s hatchback. The Belgian countryside flashed past him. It was 2014. Sargsyan was 24, a law student at the University of Brussels. He was still living with his parents. His last brush with the police — when he’d been arrested for stealing a bicycle — was a few years behind him.

Now he was on his way to recruit his first professional tennis player.

Sargsyan had read about a tournament in Arlon, a small Belgian city on the Luxembourg border. He saw that the total purse for the tournament was less than $25,000 and that many of the players were journeymen who struggled to break even on the tour.

Sargsyan formulated his plan. He would identify a player who seemed desperate — maybe one of the men from Latin America or North Africa. Sargsyan said he assumed they would be the ones most in need. He would offer the player a portion of his winnings to throw a set. The player could still win the match.

Sargsyan arrived at the hotel where the players were staying. He looked across the lobby and saw a crowd of professional tennis players. They were some of the world’s best athletes, men whose groundstrokes were as practiced and fluid as calligraphy. At their level, in almost any other major sport, they would be millionaires.

He walked over to a young player from Latin America who was stringing his racket in a corner of the lobby. Years later, when Sargsyan was asked whether he was nervous during his first approach, he scoffed, as if he was unfamiliar with the feeling.

“I don’t get nervous.”

The hotel wasn’t glamorous. With the players preparing their own gear, it had the feel of a converted locker room. The ITF tour, Sargsyan would later learn, is full of moments that invert the image most people have of tennis. Players do their own laundry to save money; some share rooms; McDonald’s is a popular post-match meal.

“Do you like gambling?” Sargsyan asked, and the player immediately seemed to know what he was talking about.

They walked outside. Sargsyan made his offer. He would pay the player to lose the second set of the match 6-0. The man accepted instantly, Sargsyan recalls.

The odds on the match were 11 to 1. The player tanked, just as he said he would, missing even easy returns, double-faulting, performatively slapping balls into the net. Sargsyan walked away with nearly $4,000. He paid the player, whom he would not identify, about $600.

“It was an incredible feeling,” he said.

If there was something about the rush of competition that had almost broken him in his chess career, filling him with an overwhelming sense of losing control, fixing tennis matches felt like a renewed source of power.

He immediately planned on doing it again. He gave the Latin American player a ride to his girlfriend’s house along the North Sea, euphoric as they sped through the countryside.

“Do you know any other players who might be interested?” Sargsyan asked him.

“Oh,” the player said, “definitely.”

V

The message popped up on Karim Hossam’s phone from an unknown Belgian number.

“Hey bro.”

Hossam immediately knew who it was. Match fixers could sense when players were most vulnerable, most in need of cash. And none of them more acutely than the man people called Gregory, who once again had timed his approach well.

Hossam was desperate.

He had been the 11th-best junior tennis player in the world and then the best professional player in Africa. The Egyptian was tall, with a powerful serve and a fierce forehand. His rise to stardom seemed inevitable.

But by the time he was 22, in 2016, Hossam had realized how difficult it was to survive as a professional tennis player outside the world’s top 100. It cost thousands of dollars to travel between tournaments. He had to buy his own rackets and shoes.

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Karim Hossam plays a forehand in a first-round singles match at the 2012 French Open Junior Championships. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

The ITF tour was the most common road to the sport’s highest ranks. A successful young player could enter an ITF Futures tournament one weekend and Wimbledon the next. But to Hossam, the tour’s structure had come to seem absurd. Even if he won a tournament, he could barely cover his expenses. Most of the time, he spent more money to play tennis than he earned.

His family had bankrolled him for years, but those funds were running out. After the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Egypt, his family’s lumber plant outside Cairo had suffered. Then, in 2015, his father was diagnosed with cancer. The medical bills piled up.

So when the text message arrived from the man who called himself Gregory, Hossam was frantically looking for a way to stay afloat.

Sargsyan had gotten Hossam’s number from a Moroccan player named Younès Rachidi, who would later break the inauspicious record for the most match-fixing offenses in the sport’s history: 135 in less than 10 months. Rachidi told The Post he regrets his role in Sargsyan’s ring. But he said he knows other players who fixed even more matches than he did who were never caught.

“It’s like doubling your money. It feels perfect, and no one knows,” Rachidi said. “You think, ‘That’s it?’ The whole world is rose-colored.”

Back then, though, he was just a friend of Hossam’s, another journeyman on the ITF tour who saw match-fixing as a way to stay afloat.

“I trusted Rachidi, and so I responded to Gregory,” Hossam later said in an interview.

The first time, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Sargsyan asked whether Hossam would lose a set for $2,500. Hossam agreed, but he walked onto the court dizzy with dread. It felt strange to lose intentionally after a lifetime of being obsessed with winning.

“It felt like everyone was watching me. I felt like I was doing something wrong, like it wasn’t normal. I invested my whole life in tennis. I was playing for 15 years, and then, all of a sudden, I’m selling matches to get money.”

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He looked at the chair umpire. Was it in Hossam’s head, or did the umpire look suspicious? The crowd, too, seemed to stare at him askance.

“You’re basically an actor on the court. Like if I’m losing love-30, then maybe I can play one point to make it look a little bit real and then miss the point after.”

After he threw his first set for Sargsyan, he threw another — and then another.

“Grigor used to text me like: Hey, Karim, I have a really good offer for you — do you want to lose the first set 6-1, for example, and get this amount of money? He gives you options. And then if you’re a seed or you have a better ranking, obviously, he gives you a better offer because everyone is betting on you to win.”

Sometimes Sargsyan would ask him to throw a match against a much weaker player. That was particularly difficult.

“Obviously, if you’re playing against a solid player, it’s very easy to sell a match,” Hossam said. “I can give him short balls and make him attack, you know, like make him play more aggressive, give him easy balls.”

“But if you’re playing against someone who is just missing balls, then I have to go out of my way, you know, like I have to make a double fault.”

VI

Hossam still knew Sargsyan only as Gregory, the rich kid who flew across Europe to watch tennis. The two eventually met in Valencia, where Hossam was playing a tournament. Sargsyan was exactly as Hossam had imagined: an impeccably dressed Belgian man in his 20s, oozing charm. He invited Hossam to one of the best restaurants in the city.

“He’s just this really cool guy,” Hossam later said. “Easy to talk to, well-connected, generous.”

Hossam had met other match fixers on the ITF circuit. Some of them were professional players who gambled on the side. There was the player from Belarus who nagged him incessantly in the locker room; the Greek player who was notorious for not paying people who threw their matches at his request. Hossam had fixed a few matches with those men. But Sargsyan was different.

He paid quickly in cash or MoneyGram transfers. He responded to messages instantly, no matter when they were sent. He seemed to know everyone. So when Sargsyan proposed that Hossam recruit more players into the ring for a commission, Hossam didn’t hesitate.

Hossam knew many of the best players from across the developing world, most of whom faced the same financial struggles he did. At major tournaments, they watched the giants of the game walk by in the locker room — Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, some of the wealthiest men in the history of sports. The gulf between the superstars and the journeymen felt at once narrow — a stronger serve, more consistent groundstrokes — and impossibly wide.

To Hossam, getting caught seemed inconceivable. He was so certain of the plan’s infallibility that he decided to recruit his brother into Sargsyan’s ring.

Youssef Hossam was four years younger and even more talented than Karim. He was relentless, dragging himself across the court to the point of exhaustion, even if he was losing. The family paid for him to train at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in southern France with Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’s former coach. In 2017, Youssef’s first full year playing professionally, he was immediately a star. He won five ITF tournaments, rocketing into the world’s top 300.

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Youssef Hossam trains on a court in suburban Cairo in September 2017. At the time, the 19-year-old held an ATP 334 ranking, (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

“I believe I have the tennis to make the top 100. I don’t see a huge gap,” he told a reporter at the Australian Open in 2016. “I will need support, not just financial, although that is important because traveling to tournaments is very expensive.”

Youssef had grown up worshiping his older brother. But the first time Karim broached the idea of fixing a match, Youssef recoiled, he said in an interview.

“I was like, ‘What the hell is this?’”

Still, Youssef knew that his tennis academy cost thousands of dollars a month. It was more than Youssef made, even as he surpassed his brother on the tour. With his family’s finances deteriorating, Youssef realized that without an infusion of cash, he would have to quit tennis.

“I was like, ‘Okay, I cannot be selfish.’ My brother and my dad are helping me, paying that amount of money for my practice, paying for this and that. This is the least I can do, you know, to help them financially.”

The first time he agreed to fix a match was in Cairo in 2017. Karim explained that they could make $4,000 if Youssef lost the first set 6-2 to a much lesser player. It was enough to cover a few weeks at his training camp.

“It was the first time I had to step on the court and actually give like 20 or 30 percent,” Youssef said. “I was like, ‘No, this is not right.’ But there are no options, you know, like we have zero money. If you fix this, you make money, you go practice, life goes on. If you don’t fix this, we don’t have money and you just stay at home.”

Still, Youssef struggled to lose. His opponent was weak. To throw a set, Youssef began making errors that only a novice would make.

“I would just miss, hit the forehand as hard as I could, two meters out,” he said.

But even then, he almost won too many games in the set.

“I had to do a couple extra double faults,” he said.

Hossam match

The next time Youssef threw a match was in Sharm el-Sheikh. Karim walked over to the fence and beckoned his brother in the middle of a game. He had been texting with Sargsyan. There was an opportunity for a fix.

“I’m on the court. I will ask my brother now,” Karim texted Sargsyan.

Their father was in the ICU. Youssef was having trouble focusing. He slammed his racket on the ground.

“Karim came to the fence and he asked me, ‘Bro, do you want to lose the second set?’

“And I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever, man. I don’t give a s—.’ I just wanted to pull out.”

It was a moment that would eventually bring both of their careers crashing down; Karim’s courtside approach, the texts and Youssef’s dramatic loss were overwhelming evidence of their match-fixing plan.

And yet, even after the brothers were caught, Sargsyan, seemingly untouchable, continued building his ring.

VII

One of the first things Sargsyan did with his new fortune was buy a Rolex. It wasn’t just that he liked the watch — though he did. It was an investment in the image he was trying to cultivate.

“These players, they’re obsessed with Rolex,” he said.

Sargsyan realized that he needed to project an aura of effortless, generational wealth to persuade players to throw matches as he prescribed. He often wore Hugo Boss from head to toe. He learned what bottles of wine to order, which restaurants served the best langoustines, which hotel in Barcelona had the best view of the Mediterranean.

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He learned to wear the watch nonchalantly, as if he had forgotten it was on his wrist. But every move Sargsyan made was calculated. When he began speaking to a recruit, he would make sure the watch was covered by a shirt sleeve. Then he would casually ensure it became visible, unveiling it so the player couldn’t help but notice.

“Like it was nothing,” Sargsyan said.

It was the same with his Jaguar.

“It’s actually not as expensive as people think,” he said. “But it sends a message.”

Sargsyan picked up on small details that hinted at a player’s desperation. There was the French player struggling to buy a diamond engagement ring, so Sargsyan paid for it. There was the Chilean player who couldn’t afford to fly his mother to his wedding, so Sargsyan bought the ticket.

Then there were the nightclubs and the dinners. There were the purchases that he still doesn’t want to discuss publicly but that make him smile boyishly in reminiscence. Sometimes he would pay players more than he promised them. Other times, even if they failed to deliver, he would still hand them the cash.

“It was about keeping them happy,” he said.

Sargsyan’s face broadcast his joy in the life he had built out of nothing. He laughed easily, as if he saw levity in the world that was visible only to him. There was a kind of magnetism in that; spending time around Sargsyan was like being invited to a party that moved alongside him, insulated from consequence.

Still, he learned that some players, for personal reasons, were incorruptible. Being rejected was an inevitable part of being a match fixer.

“Sometimes you ask a guy how he’s surviving on the tour and he tells you his father is a billionaire,” Sargsyan said. “In those cases, you just move on.”

Sargsyan knew that tennis was full of match fixers. His network would grow only if he was good to his roster. He often delivered the cash himself at train stations across Western Europe. In one month, authorities would later recount, he traveled between Belgium and Paris 22 times with envelopes of cash.

Some players, buoyed by Sargsyan’s approach, encouraged him to gamble more money on their matches when the odds were good.

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Aleksandrina Naydenova playing in a doubles semifinal match at the WTA Prudential Hong Kong Tennis Open in October 2016. (Power Sport Images/Getty Images)

“Put 1,000 more. Go fast,” Naydenova, the Bulgarian player, instructed Sargsyan in one message in 2016. Naydenova could not be reached for comment.

Naydenova’s payment arrived promptly in Bulgaria by MoneyGram, addressed to her parents from a man in Armenia, according to receipts obtained by investigators. The sender was the same person who had dispatched much of Sargsyan’s cash around the world. His name was Andranik Martirosyan.

None of the players had heard of him. Most paid little attention to where the money came from. But Martirosyan would turn out to be a critical figure. Belgian investigators would later write that he “was in charge of the financial part of the criminal organization.”

Digital bank accounts linked to Martirosyan would receive a significant portion of Sargsyan’s profits — at least 9 million euros in two years, according to wire transfer receipts obtained by investigators.

And yet Martirosyan, who declined to comment, appears to have been working with Sargsyan from an Armenian prison.

In 2015, just as Sargsyan was building his network, Martirosyan received a six-year prison sentence for assaulting several men on the dance floor of the Caliente nightclub in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. The official charge was hooliganism, according to court records.

It’s unclear how he and Sargsyan met, or how Martirosyan operated from prison. The two men exchanged messages constantly. Once, when Sargsyan expressed concern about another criminal organization, it was Martirosyan who tried to reassure him.

“They will threaten with words, but when it comes down to carrying out what they say, they will do nothing,” he wrote in a text.

“No,” Sargsyan responded. “You are mistaken.”

VIII

By 2017, Sargsyan had set a goal for himself: He wanted the biggest match-fixing network in tennis. He dreamed of opening his own tennis club in the South of France.

“I asked myself, ‘How can I industrialize this?’”

He needed someone who could bring him not just one or two players, but an entire raft of talent.

In the Netherlands, he met Sebastian Rivera, a third-generation professional player from Chile who appeared to be headed to the top tier of tennis coaching. Rivera was lean, with long black hair that he wore in a bun or under a bandanna. He explained his coaching philosophy on his website: “There is a difference between good players and good competitors.”

Rivera had secured a job with Sean Bollettieri-Abdali, the son of legendary coach Nick Bollettieri, at a tennis club in Newport Beach, Calif. Bollettieri, who had coached Andre Agassi, Venus and Serena Williams and Boris Becker, worked frequently alongside his son. Rivera was in charge of training several of the program’s best prospects. His coaching was incisive. He could watch someone play for a few minutes and come up with an astute diagnosis of their game.

“He was a really good coach. On the court, he was high-energy, very strict, with a good work ethic,” said Bollettieri-Abdali, who managed the club. “He had all of the attributes.”

But not long after Rivera began working at the club, Bollettieri-Abdali began to suspect that something about him was off.

“I knew that guy was f—ing trouble.”

Rivera seemed to know every promising young player in Latin America, which made him a major asset to the Bollettieri expansion efforts. It was that same network that made him valuable to Sargsyan.

When the two met in the Netherlands, they sized each other up. Sargsyan had come to see tennis as a world divided between the rich and the poor. Was Rivera poor enough that he could be tempted?

Rivera looked at Sargsyan.

“The guy was super-nice and polite, like a country club kid in a polo,” Rivera recalled in an interview. “He looked 23 years old. He has his Rolex. He’s this rich kid who says he’s there to help players.”

Rivera listened to Sargsyan’s pitch. It was the beginning of a lucrative partnership.

At the Bollettieri club, Rivera asked players if they were interested in throwing matches. Between practice sessions on the pristine, palm-tree-lined courts, he asked other coaches if they were willing to recruit prospects into Sargsyan’s network.

“He would come up to us and ask, ‘Do you want to make extra money on the side?’” recalled one coach, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he worried about angering Rivera. “He wanted us to introduce him to players who trusted us.”

In 2017 and 2018, Rivera would bring Sargsyan 34 players from the Bollettieri club and beyond‚ including six Americans, according to Belgian authorities, receiving at least $90,000 in commission. Their relationship is captured in hundreds of pages of text messages later seized by investigators and provided to The Post.

“Sebass, tell him to say his price for the second set,” Sargsyan said about a singles match he wanted a player to throw.

“Ok bro,” Rivera said.

A few messages later, after Rivera consulted with the player, the deal was done.

“Confirmed,” Rivera wrote.

The two became close, texting at all hours. Sargsyan sometimes got upset with Rivera when he wasn’t available in the middle of the night.

“Sebass, you fall asleep,” he wrote, adding a sad-face emoji. “Like this, it is impossible to work.”

In the interview, Rivera came up with an elaborate explanation for his involvement. He said he was working undercover for a BBC journalist doing an investigation into match-fixing.

“Chris something,” he said. “I wish I could remember his last name.”

Rivera said he maintained the relationship with Sargsyan, continuing to connect him to players, so that no one would suspect he was working with a reporter to document corruption in the sport.

“To keep it cool, you know?” he said.

When asked about Rivera, the BBC said in a statement that it “has seen no evidence to substantiate these claims. … The BBC has high journalistic standards and we have strict processes and guidelines in place that we must adhere to.”

In 2016, in a joint investigation, the BBC and BuzzFeed reported that several top players were suspected of fixing matches, even though they were never punished.

One of the players in Rivera’s circle was Dagmara Baskova, a top professional in Slovakia. She had gone pro when she was 15. On the tour, she was drawn to players who, like her, didn’t come from wealth.

“A lot of the players, especially the Russians, come from rich families,” she said. “For me, tennis was an escape from life.

Baskova met Rivera first in Sharm el-Sheikh and then again in Tunis. They smoked hookah in his hotel room. He started coaching her informally, and she could immediately see his talent. “He can read your tennis instantly,” she said. “He’ll tell you how to use your weapons.”

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By 2017, when she was 26, Baskova’s knee was badly injured. The surgery was more than she could afford, and even with the best medical care, she would never return to top form. She could tell her career was over.

She ran into Rivera at the hotel.

“I told him my knee was hurting, and he said, ‘You know, you can sell your match,’” she recalled in an interview.

Rivera gave her three options for how badly to lose a set. Losing, she learned, was easy.

“For example, when I was serving, I just hit a double fault on purpose,” she said.

The money arrived via MoneyGram from Armenia: $10,000 for the fix. She did it again and again. By the time she was done fixing matches a few months later, she had made an effortless $50,000, she said. She dreamed of starting a tennis club in Thailand.

“It was the money I needed to prepare for my life beyond tennis,” she said.

IX

As his network grew, Sargsyan became suspicious that the police were on to him. He believed he was being followed — into a pizzeria, a park where he strolled after midnight, a train station in Paris. He worried about his phones being wiretapped.

Rivera could tell that Sargsyan was growing more anxious, the carefully constructed veneer of wealth and insouciance occasionally wearing thin. Sargsyan would sometimes snap when players didn’t lose after promising to, or when they made it obvious they were losing on purpose. When one match in Egypt went awry, Sargsyan sent Rivera a flurry of threatening texts.

“I’m mad.”

“The f— I’m doing this since 3am.”

“I will break his legs.”

It would turn out that Sargsyan’s fears were not unfounded. He was being watched.

Game, Set, Fix: This is part one of a two-part series about a match-fixing ring in professional tennis. Read part two here.

About this story

Pauline Denys in Brussels and Koba Ryckewaert in Oudenaarde, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Illustrations by Anson Chan. Design and development by Andrew Braford. Data reporting by Steven Rich. Graphics by Artur Galocha. Research by Cate Brown. Design editing by Joe Moore. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Copy editing by Martha Murdock and Shibani Shah. Story editing by Peter Finn. Project editing by Reem Akkad.

Game, Set, Fix: In a two-part investigation, The Washington Post examined one of the biggest match-fixing rings in modern sports and the biggest match-fixing ring in tennis history.

Methodology: To conduct this investigation, reporters at The Post spoke to European police officers and prosecutors. The stories are also based on dozens of interviews with players, coaches, police investigators, tennis officials and match fixers. Reporters analyzed over 30,000 text messages and hundreds of pages of European law-enforcement documents, including interrogation transcripts of players, images and police investigative files revealing the depth and breadth of Grigor Sargysan’s relationships with tennis players and the gamblers who bet on their games. Data on betting markets and irregular betting was collected from regulators around the world. Point-by-point data on matches was compiled for instances of known fixing to examine how agreed-upon fixes in text messages played out on the court. Reporters also created a data set on winnings in fixed matches to analyze against the amounts players made from fixing matches, sets or games.

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