This is part two of a two-part series about a match-fixing ring in professional tennis.
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BRUSSELS - The briefing took place in a conference room at the federal prosecutor's office. A strange tip had arrived from Belgium's gambling commission.
Officials had noticed irregular wagers on obscure tennis matches played around the world. The bets were made in small towns in the Flemish countryside. The gamblers appeared to be acting on inside information; they consistently won even when they bet against steep odds.
At the time, the finding seemed mundane. But it would later help unravel the largest match-fixing scandal in the history of tennis - the world's most manipulated sport, according to investigators and betting regulators.
Nicolas Borremans, a 45-year-old police investigator based in the Flanders region of Belgium, looked around the conference room. He could tell that none of his colleagues wanted the case. Sports-related investigations were often dismissed as insignificant. This one - revolving around a few small wagers - was a particularly tough sell. But Borremans believed that the links between sports gambling and organized crime were strengthening in Belgium. And there was something intriguing about this set of facts.
"I'll take the case," he told the room.
Borremans was a tall, slender man with searching blue eyes and a bald head who cycled 40 miles to and from work every day. He was the son of a cheese vendor. Borremans joined the police force at 19 and worked for years in a carjacking unit. Once, he broke up a criminal network trafficking luxury cars between the Belgian port city of Antwerp and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Borremans knew little about sports. He had never watched an entire tennis match. But even a cursory description of the case was enough for him to see how a gambling operation might be used to launder money. After the 2016 briefing, Borremans returned to his office on the second floor of a police station in Oudenaarde, a quiet medieval town an hour from Brussels. He began diagraming what was known about the bets in PowerPoint slides.
Within a few months, he had traced the accounts of four men who had placed suspicious bets in Belgium, all Armenian immigrants. Their wagers were mostly small - a few hundred euros each - ostensibly to avoid scrutiny. Almost all of the bets were on low-level professional tennis tournaments, where players earned barely enough to pay for their travel.
Borremans secured wiretaps on the gamblers' phones, and a team of Armenian interpreters listened in. It became clear that the gamblers were working for someone. They received detailed instructions about which matches to bet on. They weren't gambling just on the outcomes, but on specific scores for sets and games.
"We heard them receive orders," Borremans recalled in an interview. "Someone would tell them, go now to the betting shop and place this much money on these matches."
Borremans added more gamblers to his diagram. "Money mules," he called them. Eventually, he would uncover 1,671 accounts at gambling establishments across Europe. Many were registered by working-class Armenians: mechanics, a pizza deliveryman, a taxi driver.
After months of wiretapping, Borremans began wondering whether his search for the gambling network's boss was approaching a dead end. The work was isolating; none of his colleagues seemed to care much about the investigation. He made an appointment with the judge who was overseeing the case.
"I told her, 'If we don't get new information soon, we're going to have to close this,'" he said.
Then, in 2017, he received a promising lead.
The professional tennis tour - the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP Tour), the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and the Women's Tennis Association together - had created its own investigation unit, hiring retired officers from London's Metropolitan Police. That unit, initially called the Tennis Integrity Unit, was formed in part because of pervasive allegations of match-fixing in the sport.
One of the integrity unit's first investigators was Dee Bain. She was in her late 50s, a veteran of the London police. Unlike Borremans, she was a tennis fanatic who saw corruption in the sport creating what she called "reputational risk."
In 2017, Bain heard through a contact at Interpol that Belgian police were working on a tennis-related case. The timing was interesting. She was closing in on one of her first match-fixing targets: Karim Hossam.
Bain saw that Hossam was playing in an ITF tournament in Tunisia. Every professional tennis player, including Hossam, signs a contract agreeing to hand their phones over to tennis investigators at any time if required. Bain had uncovered Facebook messages between Hossam and another player about a match-fixing plan; it was enough evidence to act against Hossam.
Typically, investigators follow their target before and during a match. When the match is over, investigators make their approach, often steering the player to an office where the phone is seized and interrogators are waiting.
"Nobody thinks they are going to get caught, so their messages are not deleted," said Jenni Kennedy, the integrity unit's senior director of investigations.
In Hossam's case, Bain and another investigator waited at the door of his hotel room for him to return from a match.
"They were like, 'Can we please have your phone?'" Hossam recalled in an interview. "I just froze."
He immediately admitted that he had been fixing matches. He handed over his phone. He told interrogators he had been communicating with a match fixer named Gregory in Brussels but didn't know much about him. It would become a common thread in the investigation: Almost every account of Grigor Sargsyan appeared to describe a slightly different person, adding mistaken details.
"A white guy with black hair, around 26 or 27," Hossam said, according to a transcript of the interrogation. "He has a connection with Syria or Iran. He spends a lot of time in Barcelona and drives a Mercedes."
After the interrogation, Hossam texted his brother from another number.
"They caught me in my room bro," he wrote. "And I was stupid I didn't delete some things."
Investigators sent Hossam's seized phone to an expert to decrypt. When it came back, Bain could see the messages that he had exchanged with a man named Gregory, along with the match fixer's cellphone number. She called Borremans and said a Belgian match fixer had just emerged in her investigation. He seemed to be based in Brussels and had been working with Hossam.
"That could be the guy I'm looking for," Borremans said.
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As Sargsyan's legend permeated professional tennis, he had another problem to solve: how not to get caught.
He did his best to remain inconspicuous. He often slept in his parents' apartment in the gentrifying Saint-Gilles neighborhood of Brussels, where the family had moved, even though he had his own place in the city. He took shifts at the brick-storefront Polish deli where his parents worked, just underneath their apartment.
He also urged the players he recruited to keep a low profile. He gave them SIM cards registered anonymously. He gave more-detailed instructions about how players should tank their matches.
"Please ask him not to start with a double fault," he wrote to an intermediary who had fixed a match in Casablanca, Morocco.
He instructed players not to flash their newfound wealth, but they didn't always listen. One French player, after throwing a match, filmed himself tossing a pile of cash in the air at a nightclub and posted it on Instagram. Sargsyan lost his composure.
"I told him, 'You idiot. People are going to start asking questions,'" he said in an interview.
Sargsyan stayed off social media. He broke up with his girlfriend when she started inquiring about his income. Once, when he thought his phone was being tapped, he told his players that he had "chucked it in the sea." His mother began suspecting something was wrong.
"I'm worried about him," investigators would later hear her say on a wiretapped phone. "I think he might be in trouble."
Once she texted him: "I am your mother and I love you so much. Come home, my son."
"Mother, everything is ok," he tried to reassure her.
The players, too, began to sense something was up.
One French player, Yannick Thivant, ranked 590th in the world, received 40,710 euros in 21 transfers from Armenia to his account in Skrill, a digital financial platform. Thivant, saved as "THIV" on Sargsyan's phone, received at least an additional 15,000 euros in cash, according to receipts and messages obtained by Belgian investigators.
Thivant agreed to recruit more French players into the match-fixing ring. But he began to see that Sargsyan, for all his charm, could be tempestuous. Sargsyan lashed out when he thought his players were not adequately masking their thrown matches.
"How many times do I have to say it," Sargsyan wrote to him once. "It is necessary that in the eyes of all they play thoroughly."
Sargsyan's anger deepened when he heard about players leaking their plans to other fixers to make more money.
"I have the concrete proof that they gave the full info to another person," Sargsyan, furious that one of his players was trying to double-dip, wrote to Thivant. "I warned you to tell them to shut up."
Even paying those on his roster began to get complicated.
Sargsyan had begun working with Arthur De Greef, saved as "LA GRIFFE" in his phone, who had reached a top ranking of 113th in the world. He was a member of the Belgian Davis Cup team, coached by a former Olympian. He had defeated players in the top 20 but mostly played lower-tier ITF and ATP Challenger tournaments as he tried to break into the sport's elite tier.
But when Sargsyan discussed leaving 4,500 euros in De Greef's mailbox - the payoff for a thrown match - De Greef grew concerned about getting caught.
"Sorry, you know me, I'm paranoid," he wrote in May 2018.
Sargsyan, despite his own concerns, tried to reassure him.
"You worry too much," he wrote.
Later, De Greef would tell Belgian police he never communicated with Sargsyan. When investigators showed him a picture of Sargsyan, De Greef said he had never seen him before. But in 32 messages found on Sargsyan's phone, the pair spoke with familiarity, two men whose lives revolved around the lowest rungs of the tennis tour - an immigrant from Armenia and a member of Belgium's tennis elite.
Sargsyan suggested they could exchange cash on the road.
"Abroad would be better," De Greef agreed.
Sargsyan responded with his itinerary.
"I'll be in Marseille - Barcelona - Monaco."
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Borremans now had the match fixer's number from Hossam's phone, the one saved under "Gregory."
But when he ran the number, there was no name attached to it. Borremans poured through Gregory's call records and noticed that he had been speaking with a German tennis player. Borremans then saw that, according to the phone's geolocation, Gregory had left Brussels for Berlin not long after the conversation.
Borremans checked flight records from that day to see whether any of the names from his growing list of Armenian gamblers appeared on the manifests.
There was one hit: Grigor Sargsyan.
Borremans wrote the name on the PowerPoint diagram, next to the word "Maestro."
"I was walking on clouds," he said.
In mid-2017, Borremans launched an undercover surveillance team of 10 people. He dressed in blue jeans and a sweater, joining the team to watch Sargsyan from a distance.
They monitored Sargsyan's movements through a telephoto lens and, in one instance, saw him accept a bag stuffed with cash that had just arrived in Brussels from Armenia. The police tracked Sargsyan's almost-daily trips to Paris, where he ducked into restaurants near the Gare de Lyon and Gare du Nord train stations to pay off his players.
His phone's search history would later offer a glimpse into his life and concerns. Sargsyan scoured the internet for references to himself and his players ("maestro tennis," "match fixing tennis hossam"); he did some broader research into his world ("tennis corruption," "armenian mafia"); he searched for ways to spend his new fortune ("escort geneve," "villa rent close port mallorca") But, mostly, he searched for new bookmakers ("croatia betting shop," "usa betting," "mybet Australia").
Borremans began adding the names of Sargsyan's players to his diagram. The network revealed itself to be a global operation. Eventually, Borremans would count more than 180 players from more than 30 countries.
Some of the most important players were French. Borremans knew he wouldn't be able to prosecute them in a Belgian court, so he contacted French authorities. French police launched their own investigation, eventually interrogating eight professional players. One of those, Mick Lescure, saved as "MIKKI" in Sargsyan's phone, was living with his parents on the outskirts of Paris. His tennis career appeared to be over. When he was interrogated by police, he opened up.
Referring to Sargysan only as Maestro, he described him as "a man in his thirties, of medium height, quite corpulent, with short brown hair, bearded, of Middle Eastern appearance," according to a police transcript. "He has no particularly distinguishing features."
The officers listened as Lescure spoke of the scale of his involvement.
"Since 2015, I estimate that I have accepted to deliberately lose or manipulate the outcome of 20 to 30 matches for Maestro, both in singles and doubles," he said.
But another comment from Lescure was more revealing, underscoring how Sargsyan retained his players' loyalty even as his network began to implode.
"He became a friend," Lescure said.
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Almost two years after he took on the case, Borremans walked into the command center at the police station in Oudenaarde. It was June 5, 2018.
For days, he had been meeting with police units across Belgium to prepare for Sargsyan's arrest and the takedown of the match-fixing network. "The intervention," he called it.
By then, the same officers who initially shrugged off the case had heard about Borremans's work. "It was incredible what he had done, almost entirely by himself," said Guy Reinenbergh, head of the Belgian police's sports-crime unit. He had nicknamed Borremans "the bulldog."
Borremans oversaw the operation from Oudenaarde while armed units across the country set off to make arrests. On their list were 28 people: 21 of them, including Sargsyan, were suspected of involvement in illegal gambling and paying players to fix matches. The seven others were Belgian players, including De Greef.
The police unit got to Sargsyan's parents' apartment at 6:30 a.m. They were prepared to break down the front door, but one of the officers turned the handle. It was open. Sargsyan's father was sleeping in the living room. His mother was asleep in the third-floor bedroom.
After spotting Sargsyan through an open door, the officers sprinted up the stairs to his room. Above the bed was an astronaut figurine and medals from chess championships. His phones were on the nightstand, just out of reach. The officers noticed the devices immediately. One officer nearly collided with Sargsyan as both raced toward the nightstand. But Sargsyan came up short. The officers placed the phones in an evidence bag and put their target in handcuffs.
"We knew our timing was perfect," Borremans said. "We knew those phones had the information we wanted."
Sargsyan was taken to a prison in Bruges, about 60 miles northwest of Brussels. A little over a week later, Borremans arrived to question him. They shook hands and chatted casually for a few minutes.
"He's the kind of guy you want to get a drink with," Borremans said.
Then Borremans turned to his questions. Why had Sargsyan done this? What was his relationship to criminal figures in Armenia?
"He said nothing," Borremans said. "He just smiled. You could tell that this was a person who was not ashamed about what he had done."
"For him, it's not a crime. It's being smart. It's using information."
Sargsyan remained in jail for 10 months in 2018 and 2019. His sister brought him a copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," in the original Russian. Reading it, he reflected on his own crime, once again regarding himself as the hero of his own narrative.
"Honestly, it made me proud of what I'd done," he said.
He was released in advance of his trial, which was delayed until 2023 by bureaucratic issues and then the coronavirus pandemic.
In the meantime, Borremans traveled to Miami and Los Angeles to meet with the FBI about the alleged role of Sebastian Rivera, the Chilean coach based in the United States, and some U.S.-based players suspected of involvement in the match-fixing operation. He brought along a memo from the Belgian judge assigned to the investigation.
"To the competent judicial authorities of the United States of America," it began.
It named eight tennis players living in the United States as appearing to be part of Sargsyan's network, along with Rivera. The judge requested that Rivera's home be searched and that he be interrogated.
"Rivera turns out to be a very important person having an intense cooperation with Sargsyan," the letter said.
Sitting across from the FBI agents, Borremans sensed that they weren't interested in the investigation. The Americans interrogated Rivera, but that's where the case ended. A senior FBI official said in an interview that the agency reviewed the case as a courtesy to the Belgian police, but would not comment on the details.
"There was no separate U.S. investigation," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to comment publicly on the case.
Borremans had more luck in Europe. Slovakian authorities raided the home of Dagmara Baskova, one of Rivera's recruits. They handed her a document explaining the charges against her.
"I asked the officers, 'Can I go to jail?'" she recalled in an interview. "And they said I could."
She said she lied to authorities about the total amount of money Sargsyan had paid her, claiming it was $1,500 euros a match instead of 10,000, allowing her to avoid fraud charges.
But in the interview she acknowledged that she was paid 10,000 euros for each thrown match, as the Belgian investigation showed.
"Everybody thinks that I'm so dumb that I sold them only for 1,500 euros," she said with a laugh. "But it was not for 1,500 euros."
Baskova is now a tennis coach based in Austria.
In France, authorities briefly detained and questioned four players, including Lescure and Thivant. So far, none of them have been charged. Lescure is a tennis coach at an academy in Beijing, while Thivant plays club tournaments across France. Neither player responded to requests for comment.
Recognizing how little players earn at the sport's lower tiers, the ATP Tour last month announced a pilot program offering a minimum wage for men and women in the top 250. The tour called it "a significant step towards ensuring a greater number of players can make a sustainable living from the sport."
As a part of the initiative, players ranked between 176 and 250 would be guaranteed $75,000 a year.
"Lol still not enough," wrote Australian player Nicholas Kyrgios on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
The tennis tour has in recent months issued a raft of bans and suspensions. Younès Rachidi, the Moroccan player who recruited Hossam, was banned for life - for "the highest number of offences by one individual ever detected," the tour wrote in a news release.
"I don't even know where my racket is," Rachidi said in an interview. "The sport has been ruined for me."
Lescure and Aleksandrina Naydenova, a Bulgarian player, also were banned for life. So was Rivera, who now lives in Las Vegas, where he offers private tennis lessons. The ban, he said, has made it harder to find work. Baskova was suspended for 12 years and fined $40,000.
Both Karim Hossam and his younger brother, Youssef, whom he brought into the ring, were banned for life, too, unable to play or coach on the tour, or even attend professional tournaments. In its 2020 ban of Youssef, the tennis integrity agency said he "conspired with other parties to carry out an extensive campaign of betting-related corruption at the lower levels of professional tennis."
Youssef is on the professional padel tennis tour alongside other members of Sargsyan's ring. Karim coaches youth tennis in Cairo.
When the tennis tour announced their suspensions, it made no mention of Sargsyan. The scale of his network has remained a secret until now, in part because the tour is still working on active investigations related to the operation, many of them led by Bain.
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It wasn't until late April of this year that Sargsyan arrived in Oudenaarde for his hearing, along with most of the 27 gamblers and tennis players who were part of his network in Belgium.
The court is in a Gothic-style building on the bank of the Scheldt River. Sargsyan sat near the front of the courtroom.
Mathieu Baert, a lawyer representing professional tennis, described in his opening remarks how match-fixing "takes away the essence of the sport" and invites organized criminals into tennis.
And then he turned to Sargsyan, describing the scale of his network, which was larger than any other match-fixing ring in the history of professional tennis.
"Biggest in size, biggest in money, and biggest in number of matches fixed and number of players involved," Baert said. "More than 181 tennis players are involved; more than 375 matches are involved."
Sargsyan, in a blue sweater, a blue button-down shirt and jeans, sported an almost indiscernibly sly smile.
De Greef, who had been provisionally suspended by the tour, sat on the same bench as Sargsyan and other Belgian players. When he took the stand, he denied his role in the ring.
"I've been playing tennis since I was 5 years old. I spent about 20 years training and getting to the level I was at. I always gave everything for the matches I played," he said.
De Greef declined multiple interview requests. He was found guilty of fraud and working with a criminal organization.
Grigor Sargsyan, left, waits in the courtroom of the criminal court of Oudenaarde on April 27. (Sebastien Van Malleghem for The Washington Post)
When the judge called Sargsyan's name, he approached the bench with his attorney, Dimitri Margery. Neither denied Sargsyan's role in the network. But Margery alluded to Andranik Martirosyan, the Armenian whose bank account had received millions of euros from Sargsyan's winnings, according to prosecutors.
"This is a man who I don't think has ever been heard," Margery said, adding that Martirosyan was "a sort of pivotal figure in the whole thing."
But Martirosyan, 35, was still in Armenia. When The Washington Post visited his home outside Yerevan, the Armenian capital, it was freshly renovated with beige limestone. A new truck sat in the driveway. His wife said she would ask Martirosyan if he was willing to be interviewed, but he refused. Belgian authorities told The Post they wanted their own case to conclude before pursuing his arrest.
The judge paused and then looked at Sargsyan.
"Do you wish to add anything of your own?"
"I want to turn the page and live a more just life," Sargsyan responded.
When Sargsyan walked out of the courtroom, a Washington Post journalist approached him. How did he feel about the proceedings?
Sargsyan couldn't help himself.
"If the prosecutor knew what I know, there would be many more people on trial," he said.
About two months later, the judge held a sentencing hearing. This time, Sargsyan wore a black T-shirt and jeans. Some members of the prosecution were bracing for a light sentence, thinking the judge might see the case as unserious because it involved sports.
She read the verdict aloud.
"The court sentences Grigor Sargsyan to a … prison sentence of five years."
He was convicted of leading a criminal organization, money laundering and fraud. Sargsyan was told to report to a Belgian prison on Aug. 11 to begin his sentence.
Sargsyan's expression went blank.
After court ended, Sargsyan returned to his parents' apartment above the Polish deli. He had resumed work there, hauling boxes of pickled cucumbers from the shop's front stoop as his mother yelled instructions from inside. It was the same job he had done before his match-fixing career took off.
He went straight upstairs to the bedroom where the idea for his empire was born. He pulled out his phone and began composing an email about the verdict and what it meant for him.
"A tragic end to this adventure," he wrote.