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.

Rybakina, Sabalenka to meet in Australian Open women’s final

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Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia — What all seemed so different, so daunting, even, about trying to win a Grand Slam title to Elena Rybakina a little more than six months ago is now coming rather naturally.

And if she can win one more match, she will add a championship at the Australian Open to the one she collected at Wimbledon.

Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan, reached her second final in a span of three major tournaments by beating Victoria Azarenka 7-6 (4), 6-3 at Melbourne Park on Thursday, signaling a rapid rise toward the top of tennis.

“Everything was new at Wimbledon,” Rybakina said after hitting nine aces in the semifinals to raise her tournament-leading total to 44. “Now I more or less understand what to expect.”

That could come in handy Saturday, when she will face No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus. Sabalenka reached her first Grand Slam title match at age 24 by beating unseeded Magda Linette 7-6 (1), 6-2 in Thursday’s second semifinal.

Sabalenka improved to 10-0 in 2023, winning all 20 sets she has contested this season.

More importantly, the victory over Linette gave Sabalenka her first taste of success in a Slam semi after going 0-3 at that stage until now, losing each previous attempt by a 6-4 score in the third set.

Rybakina and Sabalenka employ a somewhat similar brand of tennis, relying on big serves and big hitting at the baseline. Sabalenka is far less cautious, though, and her penchant for high-risk, high-reward play was evident against Linette, who had never before been past the third round in 29 appearances at majors.

Sabalenka finished with a whopping 33-9 edge in winners, but also compiled more unforced errors – including a trio that led to a break at love by Linette in the opening game.

The key to both semifinals turned out to be a first-set tiebreaker. Azarenka lost the mark on her strokes, for the most part, making things smoother for Rybakina, while Sabalenka raced to a 6-0 lead in hers. It wasn’t the case that each and every shot Sabalenka hit landed right on a line, but it must have seemed that way to Linette.

“In the tiebreaker, I really found my rhythm,” Sabalenka said. “Started trusting myself. Started going for my shots.”

Rybakina’s win over Azarenka, the champion at Melbourne Park in 2012 and 2013, added to what already was an impressive run through a string of top opponents. She also beat No. 1 Iga Swiatek and No. 17 Jelena Ostapenko – both owners of major titles – and 2022 Australian Open runner-up Danielle Collins.

“For sure, they’re very experienced players,” said Rybakina, whose parents and sister have been in town throughout the Australian Open. “I knew that I have to focus on every point.”

She delivered serves at up to 117 mph (189 kph) and stinging groundstrokes that she used to close points seemingly at will on Thursday. Her performance was particularly noteworthy against a returner and defender as established on hard courts as Azarenka, a former No. 1 and a three-time runner-up at the U.S. Open.

“Kind of hard to digest,” Azarenka said. “Obviously, I had quite a few chances that I gave myself.”

Rybakina is just 23, 10 years younger than Azarenka, and the future sure looks bright at the moment.

Rybakina might be seeded just 22nd in Melbourne, and ranked just 25th, but those numbers are rather misleading and not indicative at all of her talent and form. She did not get the usual bump from her title last July at Wimbledon, where zero rankings points were awarded after the All England Club banned players from Russia and Belarus because of the invasion of Ukraine.

Rybakina was born in Moscow; she switched to Kazakhstan in 2018, when that country offered to fund her tennis career.

It was breezy and chilly at Rod Laver Arena from the start of Rybakina vs. Azarenka, with the temperature dipping below 70 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius).

That had a role in the way the first set was as much of a seesaw as can be, with each player seeming to gain the upper hand – and then ceding it just as quickly. Both found the conditions slowed down the tennis balls.

“Kind of misjudged a lot of balls,” Azarenka said.

Rybakina encountered similar issues and her occasional inconsistency was encapsulated by the very first game. She began, inauspiciously enough, with a double-fault, before holding with the help of three aces.

Azarenka nosed ahead by breaking for a 3-2 lead on a leaping, full-extension volley winner with both women at the net. Rybakina, though, broke right back, and then once more to go up 5-3.

Azarenka saved a set point at 5-3 with a terrific down-the-line forehand passing shot, wound up taking the game with a backhand she accented with a shout of “Let’s go!”

A mistake-filled tiebreaker ended with Azarenka pushing a forehand wide to cap an 11-shot exchange, and the set belonged to Rybakina. She broke at love for a 2-1 lead in the second, and while they competed for another 25 minutes, the outcome was never really much in doubt.

Sure, Rybakina again faltered for a bit while trying to serve out the victory at 5-2. No one expected Azarenka to go quietly. But one last break, aided by a double-fault from Azarenka, allowed Rybakina to take another step toward another trophy.

“Ready,” she said, “to give everything I have left.”

Paul, McDonald on US Davis Cup team; Nainkin interim captain

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WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Australian Open semifinalist Tommy Paul and the player who eliminated Rafael Nadal at Melbourne Park, Mackenzie McDonald, are among the players picked by interim captain David Nainkin for the U.S. Davis Cup team’s matches at Uzbekistan next week.

Nainkin’s appointment was announced Friday, three weeks after Mardy Fish’s tenure as captain ended.

Nainkin has been with the U.S. Tennis Association since 2004. He will be assisted against Uzbekistan by Dean Goldfine, who coached 20-year-old Ben Shelton during his quarterfinal run at the Australian Open.

Paul beat Shelton in that round before losing to Novak Djokovic on Friday night.

The other members of the U.S. roster are Denis Kudla, Rajeev Ram and Austin Krajicek. Kudla replaces Jenson Brooksby on the team.

The matches will be played on indoor hard courts on Feb. 3-4.