AP Interview: ITF’s Haggerty: ‘Tennis is a clean sport’

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LONDON — In his first six months as president of the International Tennis Federation, David Haggerty has had anything but a quiet time settling into the new job. Not with allegations of match-fixing and corruption, Maria Sharapova’s doping case, and disputes over prize money buffeting the sport.

“Yes, there were some things that did come up that kind of took me away from the general mission,” Haggerty said. “But when there is controversy, there is opportunity.”

Haggerty, a former president of the U.S. Tennis Association, was elected in September to succeed Italy’s Francesco Ricci Bitti as leader of the sport’s world governing body. The only American head of an international Olympic sports federation, Haggerty has remained largely behind the scenes amid the high-profile controversies.

In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, Haggerty said he was determined to protect the integrity of tennis. He hopes to enhance systems for preventing and investigating match-fixing, strengthen the drug-testing program, and take action against any players caught using meldonium, the newly banned substance that produced Sharapova’s positive test.

“We want to make sure that every single consumer and spectator believes that tennis is a clean sport, because it is,” Haggerty said.

Corruption came to the forefront during the Australian Open in January when the BBC and BuzzFeed alleged that tennis authorities suppressed evidence of match-fixing and failed to thoroughly investigate possible fixing involving 16 players ranked in the top 50 over the past decade. That led tennis’ governing bodies to launch an independent review of the sport’s anti-corruption group, the Tennis Integrity Unit, a process expected to take at least a year.

“When match-fixing raises its ugly head, we feel as though it’s a chance to be able to talk about things that we are doing and have done,” Haggerty said. “I can assure you that we have a Tennis Integrity Unit that investigates every single suspicious alert that happens until we have evidence to prosecute or find out that there really isn’t an issue with what was found.’

“We have to put it all in perspective. You’re looking at 246 reports of unusual betting patterns last year out of 120,000 tennis matches. The percentage is small. That being said, we have zero tolerance. One is too many. But those unusual patterns don’t mean anything happened. We don’t have the evidence.”

Haggerty said the ITF was working to improve education among junior players about the dangers of match-fixing. The Tennis Integrity Unit has added extra staff, including an analyst and investigator. And the ITF itself has created its own independent integrity department.

“There’s always things you can do better,” Haggerty said.

Sharapova announced this month that she tested positive for meldonium at the Australian Open. The drug, developed in Latvia for treatment of heart conditions, was put on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list on Jan. 1. Sharapova admitted she failed to notice the drug became prohibited. The Russian said she took the drug over a 10-year period for various medical issues, not for enhancing performance.

Sharapova is provisionally suspended, pending a hearing by an independent tribunal. She could face a long ban.

“We think it shows that tennis holds no player above the cleanliness of the sport,” Haggerty said. “If any player has this in their system, it will come out, and we will take the appropriate action.”

Haggerty said he does not consider meldonium to be “overly prevalent” in tennis. He criticized former WADA president Dick Pound for saying tennis authorities knew the drug was being used in the sport and brought it to WADA’s attention.

“Frankly, it’s a bit frustrating when so-called experts are out there talking about things that are not factually correct,” Haggerty said of Pound. “In this case, you have a former president of WADA talking about something that actually had no merit and was inaccurate.”

Tennis has often been criticized for the extent of its anti-doping program. Some top players, notably Roger Federer, have complained they are not being tested enough.

“It goes from top to bottom, so they may not be tested all the time but there is a rigorous process that does happen, in top players down to low-ranked players, in competition and out of competition,” Haggerty said.

The ITF is in the final year of a four-year anti-doping program in which “we’re pretty much doubling” the number of tests, with the ratio of urine to blood checks now at 60-40, he said. ITF statistics show a total of 4,433 samples were tested in 2015, including 1,658 out-of-competition blood controls.

“It’s not necessarily quantity, it’s the quality of what you do,” Haggerty said.

The ITF leader reiterated support for equal prize money, following the comments by Indian Wells tournament director Raymond Moore that women’s tennis “rides on the coattails” of the men and that female players should “get down on (their) knees” and thank the top male stars. Moore later apologized and resigned. Top-ranked Novak Djokovic suggested men deserved higher prize money, though he has since backtracked.

Noting that the U.S. Open was the first Grand Slam to offer equal prize money more than 30 years ago, Haggerty said: “We believe in gender equality. It’s very important. The women bring great entertainment, great quality, and the men do, too. They’re both fairly compensated for what they do.”

Haggerty voiced concern about delays to the tennis venue in Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics in August. Lights have yet to be installed (the tournament has day and night sessions) and the hard courts still need to be resurfaced. The construction contract for the venue – in the heart of the Olympic Park – was rescinded in January and a new company put in charge.

“There are some things that are a little bit behind schedule,” Haggerty said. “I’m going to Rio in five weeks, not that I have any magic formula, but I’d like to see for myself and to support the team.”

One of Haggerty’s priorities is reshaping the Davis Cup and Fed Cup. The ITF board last week decided to look into the possibility of having neutral venues for the finals or a final four format for the semifinals and finals. Increasing the World Group from eight to 16 teams in Fed Cup is also under consideration.

Proposals will be put to the next ITF general assembly in September 2017, with any changes coming into effect at the earliest in 2018 and more likely in 2019.

Meanwhile, Haggerty continues to get his feet wet in Olympic circles. His predecessor, Ricci Bitti, was a big player as head of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations.

“Being the rookie and the new kid on the block, I have many, many things to learn,” Haggerty said.

 

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.