Halep avoids another first-round exit at Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — It was happening all over again to Simona Halep: Seeded No. 1 at a Grand Slam tournament, in danger of bowing out in the first round – and against the same opponent, no less.

This time, Halep dug herself out of a deficit and figured out a way to stay at Melbourne Park.

Down by a set and a break Tuesday, Halep turned things around and defeated 71st-ranked Kaia Kanepi of Estonia 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-2, reeling off the last four games and 13 of the final 15 points to avoid becoming the first top-seeded woman in 40 years to lose her opening match at the Australian Open.

It also would have been only the seventh time at any major tournament that the No. 1 woman departed so early. This sixth instance of just that sort of upset? It came in September at the previous Slam, when Halep – yes, Halep – was beaten by Kanepi – yes, Kanepi – on Day 1 at the U.S. Open.

When her disastrous and disappointing showing in New York was brought up after Tuesday’s match, Halep couldn’t help but smile.

“Well, I don’t want to remember about that match,” she said, “because it was a tough one.”

Since professionals were first admitted to Grand Slam tournaments in 1968, only once has a woman seeded No. 1 lost her opening match at the Australian Open: It happened in 1979 to Virginia Ruzici, who just so happens to be Halep’s manager.

Things have been turbulent lately for Halep, a Romanian who was the runner-up to Caroline Wozniacki in Melbourne a year ago, before collecting her first major championship at the French Open a few months later.

But after closing 2018 with a four-match losing streak and dealing with a problematic back, her offseason was marked by the departure of coach Darren Cahill, whom she has yet to replace.

A loss to Kanepi in Australia would have added to the series of problems, and that was the direction in which Halep appeared to be headed, trailing by a set and 2-1 in the second after getting broken. But Halep broke right back there and again to claim that set.

From 2-all in the third, Halep held to go ahead, and then came the key moment.

Kanepi was serving at 40-love when she dropped five points in a row via groundstroke unforced errors – four on backhands – to get broken to 4-2. After that game, a blister on Kanepi’s left ring finger was treated by a trainer, and Halep was well on her way to a victory she said would give her “a lot of confidence.”

“I had to be strong in the legs,” Halep said, “and believe that I could win the match.”

This time, she did.

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.