One of the sleepers, Berdych, reawakens rivalry with Nadal

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MELBOURNE, Australia — The men’s tennis tour picked four “sleepers” to watch at the Australian Open. One of them has reached the fourth round at the Australian Open as many times — 11 — as Stefan Edberg, who won two titles in five finals here. He also has won more matches (47) at the season-opening Grand Slam in the Open era than Pete Sampras, who won two Australian titles among his 14 majors.

Care to guess who? It’s Tomas Berdych, the 2010 Wimbledon finalist. He next plays Rafael Nadal, who has reached the second week at Melbourne Park a dozen times.

Of the ATP’s other so-called sleepers, Milos Raonic is still in contention in the other half.

The big-serving Canadian’s win over 2014 champion Stan Warwinka took one of them out of equation. The other, 2008 runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, lost to top-ranked Novak Djokovic in a second-round rematch of the 2008 Australian final.

That leaves Berdych first among the quartet into the second week.

Berdych is outnumbered by Nadal on almost every statistic bar one — the 33-year-old Czech had more time on the sidelines last year with injury.

He beat No. 18 Diego Schwartzman 5-7, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 on the third of the show courts on Friday to reach the fourth round here for the 11th time in 13 years. Nadal beat 19-year-old Australian Alex de Minaur 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 in the opening night match on Rod Laver Arena.

“I don’t say I’m here, ready to win the tournament, because you never know what’s going on,” Nadal said. “The only thing that I can say is I won three good matches, and now I have another tough opponent in front that he’s playing great.

“He started the season at a very high level. So going to be a very big test for me.”

Coming off six months out because of a back injury, Berdych is unseeded at a major for the first time since 2005 and lurking in the draw as a difficult early-round rival for top players.

He beat No. 13-seeded Kyle Edmund, a semifinalist here last year, and Robin Haase. Now his path winds back to a long-time road block.

Second-seed Nadal, a 17-time major winner, is coming off three months on the sidelines with knee and ankle injuries but has hit form quickly.

Nadal leads their career head-to-heads 19-4, but Berdych’s win in the quarterfinals here in 2015 will keep it interesting.

Berdych said he feels fresher physically and mentally after his time out.

“The way I see things. It’s all together. It comes up to the result that I’m really feeling very good on court,” he said. “Yes it’s a combination of a different preparation, a different approach. Quite a lot of changes for me in the last six months.

“Seems they’re paying off.”

Berdych has been on the tour during the domination of the so-called Big Four — Roger Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray — and perhaps could have won a major if he’d played in another era. But it doesn’t bother him as he heads into the twilight of his career.

“Our generation is too strong. It’s just proved by the results,” he said. “You have a clear fact, clear results. That’s so far how it is.

“The only change is, we’re just getting older — it’s a process you cannot stop. One day it’s going to get ended. The young ones are going to take over. We’re just trying to do our best.”

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.