Serena, Venus will face each other at Italian Open

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ROME — Serena Williams looked sharper than in her previous match two months ago as she opened her clay-court season with a routine 6-4, 6-2 win over Swedish qualifier Rebecca Peterson on Monday.

Next up at the Italian Open: Sister Venus Williams in the siblings’ first meeting on European clay in nearly 17 years.

Venus, who won her only Rome title 20 years ago, defeated Elise Mertens 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (4) after more than three hours, requiring nine match points before eliminating her Belgian opponent.

The Williams sisters’ last match on red clay came in the 2002 French Open final won by Serena. In their last match in Rome, Venus won their second career meeting way back in the 1998 quarterfinals.

“That’s crazy,” Serena said. “I vaguely remember that, so I don’t really remember. … We play each other a lot. Seems like every tournament nowadays we meet early. It is what it is.”

Serena is now a 37-year-old mother and Venus is 38.

“It doesn’t change at all. We’re just as fierce, Venus is just as fierce,” Serena said. “We both really want to get some match play. We’ll both do the best that we can.

Serena leads the career series 18-12.

“I know that she’s going to play really well and compete really well,” Venus said. “That’s a given.”

In March at the Miami Open, Serena needed three sets to beat Peterson.

“It’s been a while. I haven’t played a ton of matches this year,” Serena said. “Not my choice, just by force. I really, really actually desperately wanted to be on the tour and to be playing. It felt good to finally be back out. Hopefully, I’ll be able to keep it up.”

Serena fell behind 3-1 in the first set but then began to take control with her baseline power on a windy day at the Foro Italico.

When Serena ran down a passing attempt from Peterson and replied with a cross-court winner to break for 5-2 in the second set, she let out a scream and bent over as she pumped both of her fists.

In the final game, Serena served two aces and saved two break points before closing out the first-round match.

Serena finished with 28 winners to Peterson’s eight, and committed only two more unforced errors than the 58th-ranked Swede, 22-20.

Serena was playing for the first time since withdrawing ahead of her third-round match in Miami because of a left knee injury. The last time Serena played in Rome was in 2016 when she won the last of her four Italian Open trophies.

Serena is playing only her fourth tournament of the season and was unable to finish her last two due to physical ailments.

“I haven’t been able to train or practice a lot. I was out much longer than I expected,” Serena said. “But I did everything I could to stay fit and to keep my cardio up. I knew that I love the clay season and I wanted to be a part of it.”

In men’s action, Italy’s top player Fabio Fognini wore a shirt featuring a design of Rome’s skyline during a 6-3, 6-4 win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga; and Borna Coric rallied past Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-4 in a matchup of two of the top young players on tour. Auger-Aliassime struggled with his serve, hitting seven double-faults to Coric’s one.

Also, Karen Khachanov overcame a partisan crowd to beat Italian wild card Lorenzo Sonego 6-3, 6-7 (1), 6-3; while last year’s French Open semifinalist Marco Cecchinato was inspired by the home fans to beat Alex Di Minaur 4-6, 6-3, 6-1.

Spanish qualifier Albert Ramos-Vinolas eliminated Gael Monfils 6-3, 6-1; and Denis Shapovalov beat Pablo Carreno Busta 6-3, 7-6 (5).

Others advancing on the women’s side included Madison Keys, Garbine Muguruza, Johanna Konta and Dominika Cibulkova.

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.