Simona Halep earns second straight year-end No. 1 ranking

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LONDON — Simona Halep is back as the year-end No. 1 for the second year in a row, despite a back injury that doctors say could lead to a long-term problem.

Halep, who won her first major title at this year’s French Open, clinched the year-end top tennis ranking on Monday but may be forced to pull out of the upcoming Kremlin Cup and the season-ending WTA Finals because of a herniated disk.

“I haven’t practiced 100 percent yet but today, tomorrow, I will do close to 100,” Halep said in a conference call, “and I will be able to know better the next day.

“The doctor told me it’s nothing about the surgery, but if I will keep playing there is a risk of long-term injury. I don’t need that and I don’t want that, so I have to make good decisions in the next days.”

The 27-year-old Halep had her best year on tour in 2018, reaching the Australian Open final and then winning her first Grand Slam title a few months later at Roland Garros. But she announced at the start of this month that she had an MRI exam after retiring from her first-round match at the China Open and the herniated disk problem was found.

The Kremlin Cup runs this week and the WTA Finals, which is for the top eight players in the world, begin in Singapore on Oct. 21.

“I hope first to be able to play here (in Moscow) because … I have already 3-4 days getting ready for this tournament,” Halep said. “But if I will not be able to play here, I’m very doubtful that I will be able to play in Singapore because it’s very fast.

“So I don’t know now, but for sure I will take a decision for my health first.”

Despite the injury, Halep is still relishing in her season. She has been at the top of the rankings for nearly the entire year even though her results suffered as the season wore on.

Halep has played in 15 tournaments so far in 2018, but she followed up her first major title by losing in the third round at Wimbledon. She then lost in the first round at the U.S. Open.

Keeping her best level throughout the long season is something Halep has struggled with, even though she has qualified for the WTA Finals in each of the five years since its move to Singapore.

“It’s really difficult and I feel it every year, and I feel it more and more, to be honest. I give everything I have the first part of the year and then it’s difficult for me to play,” said Halep, who also reached French Open finals in 2014 and 2017 but lost both times. “My goal for the next years is to be better in this position, if I would be able to qualify again for the Finals. I want just to be better and ready to play the tournament.”

But before she takes the court in Singapore, or in Moscow, there’s that back injury that is still bothering her.

“It’s been very stressful, and I was worried every day because I was waiting to see how I feel every morning I wake up,” Halep said. “So it’s pretty stressful but somehow it’s normal because injuries are pretty normal when you play at the highest level. So I try just to keep myself calm and to be positive. I know it’s not an easy injury. The back is always difficult, but I have to accept it and to look forward.”

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.