Absence of Williams sisters highlights scheduling issue

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BRISBANE, Australia (AP) U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez says the Fed Cup format may have to change if the world’s best players are to find time in their schedules to take part more consistently in the international women’s tennis competition.

The United States will be without its top three singles players, Serena and Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens, when it faces Australia in a World Group playoff this weekend.

The Americans still have a strong team for the match, which will be played on a temporary clay court at Brisbane’s Pat Rafter Arena. The lineup includes No. 22-ranked Madison Keys, Coco Vandeweghe (36), Christina McHale (57) and Bethanie Mattek-Sands (89).

The absence of the biggest names raised questions over whether the tournament can retain its prestige.

Fernandez told a news conference Wednesday the format and scheduling of the tournament made it difficult for top players such as the Williams sisters to easily commit. She said players mapped out their schedules at the start of the year and were then required to find space at late notice for Fed Cup ties.

“We didn’t find out we were coming to Australia until the second week of February,” Fernandez said. “It’s not the most convenient thing to do, come to Australia when everyone’s heading to Europe or in the States.”

Fernandez said she’d spoken to the International Tennis Federation about revising the format, and agrees a format more like the men’s Davis Cup could make it “a little bit easier to follow and it will be a lot more convenient for the players.”

Australia captain Alicia Molik said the attitude to Fed Cup differed from nation to nation but few countries took the tournament more seriously than Australia, which will be represented on the weekend by Sam Stosur, Daria Gavrilova, Casey Dellacqua and Arina Rodionova.

“The tradition starts young,” Molik said. “We’re fortunate in Australia to have our best players wanting to play and put their hand up at all times to represent their country.”

Molik said she understood the reasons the top U.S. players were absent and said Australia would not be taking their opponents lightly.

“In Serena and Venus’s case, Olympics is a big goal for them, they have (already) qualified,” Molik said. “The U.S. has the luxury, they have a lot of top players, but I think it just really points out that we here in Australia have players who are really commited to our country.”

French players get life bans for fixing

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LONDON — Two low-ranked French players were banned from the sport for life after being found guilty of match-fixing by a hearing officer.

Jules Okala, a 25-year-old with a career-best ATP ranking of No. 338, and Mick Lescure, a 29-year-old with a top ranking of No. 487, “admitted multiple charges,” the International Tennis Integrity Agency announced.

Neither player is allowed to compete at – or even attend – any sanctioned event again.

Okala was found guilty of seven match-fixing charges and fined $15,000 in addition to the permanent suspension. Lescure was found guilty of eight charges and fined $40,000 on top of the ban.

The punishments come after both players were involved in law enforcement investigations in France and Belgium, according to the sport’s integrity agency.

Ash Barty wins Australia’s top sports award for second time

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Ash Barty’s Australian Open singles title in January was enough to ensure the former top-ranked player won Australia’s most prestigious annual sports award — despite retiring from the game less than two months later.

Barty has been given The Don Award, named after its most accomplished and famous cricketer Don Bradman.

Barty shocked the tennis world in March when she announced her retirement at the age of 25. The three-time major winner was the No. 1-ranked female player at the time of her retirement decision.

The Sport Australia Hall of Fame’s Don Award is given to an athlete or a team “which has provided the most inspiration to the country through performance and example in the past year.”

Barty (2019, 2022) joins Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sally Pearson (2012, 2014) and Olympic champion pole vaulter Steve Hooker (2008, 2009) as a multiple winner of the award.

Barty said she had decided before the Australian Open started that it would be her last major tournament.

“This year was certainly my most enjoyable Australian Open . . . because it felt free,” Barty said in a television interview. “I played without consequence, I played like a little kid. In my eyes, there was no pressure. It was just about me trying to redeem myself, in a way, and playing how I’d always wanted to play – go out there and play like the kid that fell in love with sport.”

Barty said she has no plans to return to tennis.

“In my mind there was never going to be a perfect ending, but it was my perfect ending,” Barty said of her retirement. “It was never about finishing on a win or on a really high emotional feeling. It was just about collectively, I felt it was right.

“Now (that decision) has led to nine months of just an incredible life off the court. It’s been amazing.”

Barty married her long-time partner Garry Kissick in late July. She also golfs frequently and is reported to be playing off a handicap of low single figures.