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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.

Kuznetsova wins a dramatic three-set match against Radwanska

Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia celebrates after beating Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland during their singles match at the WTA tennis tournament in Singapore, Monday, Oct. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
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SINGAPORE — A physically spent Svetlana Kuznetsova claimed a draining 7-5, 1-6, 7-5 win over defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska in nearly three hours at the WTA Finals on Monday.

Kuznetsova, who saved a match point on Radwanska’s serve near the end, eventually prevailed on a third match point to break Radwanska’s serve.

“At some point I was just ready to let it go, just lay on the court and let them take me out of here,” Kuznetsova told the cheering crowd. “I was just trying to stay in there and hang in there.”

Kuznetsova was the last player to earn a berth into the eight-player, year-end championships when she defended her Moscow title on Saturday.

The Russian arrived in Singapore on Sunday afternoon after a grueling four weeks of chasing a spot in the WTA Finals for the first time since 2009.

Kuznetsova played three tournaments in China ahead of taking a wildcard into the Moscow tournament.

In a bizarre move while trailing 1-2 and down a break in the third set, Kuznetsova took a pair of scissors to the back of her head and cut off a portion of her braid during the changeover.

Kuznetsova immediately broke Radwanska’s serve after the impromptu haircut, but after dropping her serve again in the fifth game she cried into her towel on the changeover.

Still, trailing 2-4 Kuznetsova refused to surrender and climbed back into the set.

The hair Kuznetsova sheared off remained on her chair for the remainder of the match.

Top-seeded Kerber toils in win vs. Cibulkova at WTA Finals

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SINGAPORE — Top-seeded Angelique Kerber struggled to defeat seventh-seeded Dominika Cibulkova 7-6 (5), 2-6, 6-3 on the opening day of the WTA Finals in Singapore on Sunday.

Kerber, who secured the top ranking last month, battled Cibulkova for 2 hours, 17 minutes before the Slovakian finally succumbed.

“It was a really good match from both of us, especially the first set,” Kerber said. “It’s a good start to the tournament like this, where you knew you had to play your best to win.”

Earlier on Sunday, third-seeded Simona Halep won the first match of the round-robin portion of the tournament by taking a 6-2, 6-4 decision over sixth-seeded American Madison Keys.

In Red Group action, Kerber and Halep stand at 1-0, while Keys and Cibulkova are at 0-1.

On Tuesday, Kerber will play Halep, while Cibulkova and Keys, both making their WTA Finals debut, will play each other.

Kerber posted 29 winners and 32 unforced errors to 36 winners and 34 unforced errors for Cibulkova.

Cibulkova dropped serve in the opening game of the match, which initially allowed Kerber to establish a 4-2 lead in the first set.

Kerber didn’t hold on to the advantage, surrendering her own serve on a second double-fault in the eighth game.

That sent the first set to a tiebreaker where the German eventually prevailed.

“At the beginning I was too excited, but after a few games I started to play my game,” Cibulkova said. “It was a really tough one, really close, and in these kind of games it’s about the small details.”

Cibulkova dominated the second set, racing to 4-0 lead.

In the third, Cibulkova was temporarily in charge with a 2-0 lead, but lost five of the next six games to end up on the losing side of the result.

It’s been a stellar season for Kerber, who won her first two Grand Slam titles at the Australian and US Opens, and also brought home the Olympic silver medal from Rio.

Kerber’s never journeyed beyond the round-robin stage of the WTA Finals in three previous appearances in 2012, 2013 and 2015.

In the opening match, Keys played erratic tennis throughout the 69-minute contest, losing serve on four of 10 break points faced.

“I definitely think there were some nerves,” Keys said. “I think one of her strengths is making you feel like you have to go for more and take the risks. I think sometimes she makes me uncomfortable and I back away from playing my game.”

Keys held serve in the opening game of the match, but then saw Halep win the next five games for a 5-1 lead in the first set.

Halep lost an initial 4-2 lead in the second set, but from 4-4 won the final two games.

The Romanian reached the final here in 2014 and now holds a 5-1 head-to-head record against Keys.

“I think I played exactly what I had to play against her,” Halep said. “I was focused. Everything went as I wanted, so I’m happy.”