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.


Jabeur bounces back at French Open, Ruud and Andreeva advance

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PARIS — Ons Jabeur got a do-over on Court Philippe Chatrier at the French Open and won this time.

A year after her first-round exit, the No. 7 seed Jabeur beat Lucia Bronzetti 6-4, 6-1 to help erase some bad memories and answer questions about a recent calf injury.

The Tunisian, a crowd favorite in Paris, smiled and expressed relief in not repeating last year’s mistake, when she lost to Magda Linette of Poland.

“I’m very happy to win my first match on Philippe Chatrier – because I’ve never won here,” Jabeur said on court about the clay-court tournament’s main stadium.

Now she can focus on trying to win her first major. She was runner-up at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year.

The 28-year-old Jabeur has also battled injuries this season. She had knee surgery after the Australian Open, and was then sidelined with a calf injury. She had stopped playing against top-ranked Iga Swiatek at the clay-court tournament in Stuttgart, Germany, in late April and then pulled out of the Madrid Open.

“It was a very difficult period for me after Stuttgart,” said Jabeur, adding that she’s beginning to find her rhythm.

Jabeur struck 27 winner’s to Bronzetti’s seven, though with 24 unforced errors she’ll have room to improve.

Mirra Andreeva had a memorable Grand Slam debut by dominating Alison Riske-Amritraj 6-2, 6-1. Andreeva’s older sister – 18-year-old Erika – was facing Emma Navarro later in the day.

Later, Swiatek gets her French Open title defense started against Cristina Bucsa, who is ranked 70th.

On the men’s side, No. 4 seed Casper Ruud beat qualifier Elias Ymer 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, to remind the higher-profile tournament favorites that he was runner-up to Rafael Nadal last year at Roland Garros.

New mom Elina Svitolina beats seeded player at French Open in 1st Slam match in 16 months

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PARIS — So much has changed for Elina Svitolina, who played – and won – her first Grand Slam match in nearly 1 1/2 years at the French Open, eliminating 2022 semifinalist Martina Trevisan 6-2, 6-2.

For one thing, she’s now a mother: Svitolina and her husband, French tennis player Gael Monfils, welcomed their daughter, Skaï, in October. For another, Svitolina is now ranked 192nd, nowhere near the career high of No. 3 she first reached in 2017, back in the days when she was regularly reaching the second weeks of major tournaments – including a pair of semifinal runs. Away from the courts, her home country of Ukraine was invaded by Russia last year, and the war continues.

“Everything,” she said, “is kind of old and new for me right now.”

In sum, Svitolina is juggling a lot nowadays.

She hadn’t played at a Slam since a third-round exit at the Australian Open in January 2022. She hadn’t played a match anywhere since March 2022, when she was still ranked 20th.

“It was always in my head … to come back, but I didn’t put any pressure on myself, because obviously with the war going on, with the pregnancy, you never know how complicated it will go,” the 28-year-old Svitolina said.

The work to return to the tour after giving birth began this January; her initial WTA match came at Charleston, South Carolina, in April. She won her first title since returning to action, at a smaller event on red clay in Strasbourg, France.

At Roland Garros, she used her big forehand to compile a 20-12 edge in winners and never faced a single break point against Trevisan, who was seeded 26th.

Trevisan cried as she spoke after the match about a problem with her right foot that made it difficult to even walk and prompted her to stop playing during her quarterfinal last week at the Morocco Open, where she was the defending champion.

Still, she gave Svitolina credit.

“Even though she’s just coming back from having a daughter, she’s a champion,” Trevisan said. “And she’s coming off a title, so she’s confident.”

Svitolina talked about feeling “awful when you’re pregnant, especially the last months,” but getting into a position now where she thinks she’s stronger than before – in more ways than one.

“I feel that I can handle the work that I do off the court and, match by match, I’m getting better. Also mentally, because mental (state) can influence your physicality, as well,” she said. “I tried to find the balance, and I feel like I’m seeing (things) a little bit again differently as well after the break. Everything is getting there. The puzzles are getting slowly into place.”