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Match-fixing allegations overshadow Day 1 at Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic recalled his own brush with match-fixing, as the start of the year’s first Grand Slam tournament was overshadowed by corruption allegations.

Djokovic started his bid for a sixth Australian Open title with a 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 win over Chung Hyeon of South Korea on Monday, hours after the BBC and Buzzfeed News published reports alleging match-fixing had gone unchecked in tennis.

No players were identified in the reports, which alleged 16 players had been flagged repeatedly with tennis authorities but not sanctioned on suspicion of match fixing. Half of those are entered in the Australian Open, the reports said.

The governing bodies for the sport, and the Tennis Integrity Unit, issued a joint statement, read by ATP chairman Chris Kermode at a hastily-convened news conference at Melbourne Park.

Kermode said tennis authorities “absolutely reject any suggestion that evidence of match-fixing has been suppressed for any reason, or isn’t being investigated.”

[MORE: Federer says it’s time to name players suspected of match-fixing]

Djokovic later responded to a question about an approach ahead of a tournament in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2007.

“I was approached through people that were working with me at that time, that were with my team,” he said. “Of course, we threw it (the approach) away right away. It didn’t even get to me. The guy that was trying to talk to me, he didn’t even get to me directly. There was nothing out of it.

“Unfortunately there were some, in those times, those days, rumors, some talks, some people were going around. They were dealt with. In the last six, seven years, I haven’t heard anything similar.”

[MORE: Djokovic offers healthy choice entering Australian Open]

Djokovic was an up-and-coming player at the time, not winning the first his 10 major titles until the 2008 Australian Open.

“It made me feel terrible because I don’t want to be anyhow linked to this kind of – you know, somebody may call it an opportunity,” he said. “For me, that’s an act of unsportsmanship, a crime in sport honestly. I think there is no room for it in any sport, especially in tennis.”

Djokovic said he thought the allegations related to matches from almost 10 years ago and didn’t involve active players.

Roger Federer, a 17-time major winner and former leader of the player council, agreed the allegations likely weren’t new but remained “super serious.”

“I would love to hear names,” Federer said. “Then at least it’s concrete stuff and you can actually debate about it. Was it the player? Was it the support team? Who was it? Was it before? Was it a doubles player, a singles player? Which slam?

“It’s super serious and it’s super important to maintain the integrity of our sport. So how high up does it go? The higher it goes, the more surprised I would be, no doubt about it.”

Serena Williams was on court preparing for her opening 6-4, 7-5 win over No. 34-ranked Camila Giorgi when Kermode was holding a news conference to respond to the fixing allegations.

Like Djokovic, Williams won three of the four major titles last season, but hadn’t finished a competitive match for months. She withdrew from the Hopman Cup because of inflammation in her knee, playing just one set in Perth.

“I haven’t played in a long time, but I have been playing for 30 years, so it’s kind of – I try to focus on that,” Williams said. “I was able to stay in it and stay calm today and I think that’s what matters most.”

The 21-time major winner said there was no hint of match-fixing on the women’s tour.

“I play very hard, and every player I play seems to play hard,” she said. “As an athlete, I do everything I can to be not only great, but, you know, historic.”

[MORE: Women’s elite stars shaking off injuries, colds at Australian Open]

Maria Sharapova, who lost to Williams in the final here last year and could meet her again in the quarterfinals, showed no signs of a left forearm injury that curtailed her preparations when she beat Nao Hibino 6-1, 6-3 in a night match. Genie Bouchard advanced with a 6-3, 6-4 win against Alexandra Krunic.

Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova beat Thai qualifier Luksika Kumkhum, avenging her upset loss in the first round here in 2014, and No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska beat Christina McHale 6-2, 6-3. Also advancing were No. 10 Carla Suarez Navarro, No. 12 Belinda Bencic, No. 13. Robert Vinci and No. 23 Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Former No.1-ranked Caroline Wozniacki lost 1-6, 7-6 (3), 6-4 to Yulia Putintseva, continuing a downward spiral at Melbourne Park that has resulted in her exiting one round earlier each year since she reached the 2011 semifinals.

No. 24 Sloane Stephens, a semifinalist in 2013, lost 6-3, 6-3 to Chinese qualifier Wang Qiang.

US tennis player Madison Keys, 21, feels both young and wise

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Madison Keys is ranked in the top 10 in the world, a Grand Slam semifinalist who just played for an Olympic bronze medal and has earned career prize money of well over $4 million.

She’s also only 21, much closer in age to her middle school days than to No. 1 Serena Williams, and the youngest woman in the top 20 by nearly a year-and-a-half.

This is where the American finds herself as she heads into next week’s U.S. Open: an established pro with the game to win major titles, yet competing in a sport in which many players now peak in their late 20s and even early 30s.

Patient and impatient at the same time about her tennis, Keys is also sorting out what she wants to accomplish off the court. She announced Wednesday that she will fund and host six summits for teens at schools around the world in 2017 in partnership with the organization FearlesslyGIRL.

“That’s such a tough time for any girl – I know it was a tough time for me,” Keys said in a recent phone interview.

“To sit down in a big group and talk to each other about it, you realize you’re not so alone,” she added. “It makes everything seem so much smaller and more manageable.”

Keys has two younger sisters and sees this in a way as just adding many more.

“It’s being able to relate to them on such a personal level,” she said, “but also knowing it does get better.”

For her, sports was always a part of that.

“When you’re 13 or 14, sometimes you wake up in a bad place,” she said. “You feel like everything’s out of your control. You don’t know what to do.

“The second I was on the tennis court, I had the structure I wanted. I was in complete control of what I was doing.”

Long considered one of the world’s most promising young players, Keys burst through to the semifinals of the 2015 Australian Open while still a teenager.

“All of a sudden, people say, `She’s a contender,”‘ Keys recalled. “It’s the next logical step: You made the semifinals, you should make a final. You make a final, you should win.

“Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.”

The rest of the year, she lost in her first or second match of a tournament nine times, though her results in the Grand Slams were better. And with her profile soaring, so did the harassment on social media.

“I could go through my Twitter account right now and there would be 10 horrible messages,” Keys said.

“All of a sudden,” she recalled, “I was getting all these messages that I was fat and ugly, and I wasn’t prepared for it.”

It took time for her to remind herself that the trolls were most likely gamblers who spewed vitriol because they were betting on a match. That realization was crucial.

“If you’re not in my immediate circle,” she said, “you’re not someone whose opinion I value.”

On the court, she needed to remind herself to trust the process and not obsess over individual wins and losses. In 2016, the upward trajectory has resumed. Keys has made three finals, winning her second WTA title, and is currently ranked a career-best ninth. At the Rio Games, she made it to the semifinals – then ran into two Grand Slam champions in a row in Angelique Kerber and Petra Kvitova, losing to both to miss out on a medal as their superiority showed.

Keys, who withdrew from this week’s Connecticut Open with a neck injury, is set to be seeded eighth when the U.S. Open starts Monday – a key number because it means she can’t meet Williams or Kerber until the quarterfinals at the earliest. She’s been eliminated in the round of 16 at her last four majors.

“We believe she’ll win a Grand Slam really soon,” said her agent at IMG, Max Eisenbud, who has also managed Maria Sharapova and Li Na.

At a time when seven of the top 20 players in the women’s rankings are in their 30s, the younger generation has finally started to push through in recent months. Garbine Muguruza, 22, won the French Open, then Monica Puig, also 22, was the surprise Olympic gold medalist.

“I want to get to that next step as quickly as I can,” Keys said. “If that’s three weeks, great. But if it’s three months, no problem, or even three years.”

4-time champ Wozniacki exits Connecticut Open in 1st round

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NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Caroline Wozniacki entered the Connecticut Open as a wild card, hoping a tournament she has won four times would help her tune up for the U.S. Open.

Instead, the former top-ranked player from Denmark saw her struggles continue in a 7-5, 6-2 first-round loss to Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia on Monday.

“It’s been a really weird year for me, something I’m not used to,” said Wozniacki, who has dealt with injuries all year.

“It’s frustrating when you practice well and can’t really execute in the matches. … At least when I know when I’m playing my best level, if someone beats me, that’s fine. But what’s frustrating is when you’re not playing your best and then you get beat.”

Wozniacki, now ranked 51st, was coming off a second-round loss to Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic at the Olympics.

Kvitova advanced Monday night with a 1-6, 6-1, 6-3 win over American Louisa Chirico. She will next face Eugenie Bouchard, a 6-2, 6-1 winner over Annika Beck of Germany.

No. 20 Elena Vesnina also advanced with a 6-1, 6-4 win over Camila Giorgi of Italy.

Top-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska was to have met Wozniacki in the second round. Instead, Radwanska, ranked No. 5, will face Ostapenko, 19, who reached the final at Doha in February and won the Wimbledon junior girls tournament in 2014.

Against Wozniacki, Ostapenko staved off a set point in the first set, won four straight games to close out the set and never looked back.

“After that, the match turned the other way,” Ostapenko said of her service breaks. “She’s a great player … so I just played like I had nothing to lose.”

Wozniacki’s early exit leaves the tournament with four players in the WTA’s Top 20 – Radwanska of Poland, Vesnina of Russia, Kvitova of the Czech Republic and second-seeded Roberta Vinci of Italy.

In other matches Monday, Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia, Caroline Garcia of France, Evgeniya Rodina of Russia, Annet Kontaveit of Estonia and Ana Konjuh of Croatia all advanced to the second round.