Ashleigh Barty donates Brisbane winnings to wildfire relief

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BRISBANE, Australia — Ashleigh Barty was flying home across Australia following the Fed Cup final when she saw the early signs of devastation from the wildfires that are still raging in large parts of the vast island continent.

So the problem hasn’t just dawned on her, the highest-profile tennis star in Australia, like it may have for some players arriving for the season-opening events. But the scale and gravity of the situation is really hitting home.

Barty went to a nearby animal shelter after she returned from the Fed Cup loss to France in Perth last November and donated money, because at that stage animals were the main casualties of the flames. Now, with Australia in the grip of its worst wildfire season in recorded history and with a human death toll of 24, she’s joining the fundraising for a bigger relief effort.

The No. 1-ranked Barty is donating any prize money she wins at the Brisbane International, her home tournament, to the Australian Red Cross for the recovery effort. The winner of the tournament, which starts Monday, will earn more than $250,000.

“It’s been really terrible, it really has. For me this started two or three months ago,” Barty said of the damage caused by what Australians commonly call bush fires. “We have to remember, this has been going on for a long time across our whole country. The first I saw of it was actually flying home … to the east coast and we could see some of the smoke and some of the fires.

“Obviously the worst of it is still out there at the moment. Now it’s not just the wildlife, it’s also affected Australians with their lives and their homes.”

Actors, athletes, entertainers and everyday citizens have committed millions of dollars in pledges to the relief effort, and organizers of sports events are setting up fundraising events. Australian Open organizers will hold a special charity event on Jan. 15, five days before the season’s first major begins in Melbourne.

Nick Kyrgios was among the first tennis players to pledge, promising 200 Australian dollars for every ace he hits this month. He served 20 in Australia’s opening win at the ATP Cup.

Barty, who started her rise to No. 1 with a run to the quarterfinals at the last Australian Open and then won her first major title at the French Open, will also be a familiar face in the fundraising campaign.

While the fires have mobilized athletes and sports administrators, conditions have also caused concerns about health and safety for players, particularly in tennis and cricket which are such a big part of the Australian summer.

Seven-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic is among those who’ve talked about the possible effects of the wildfires on the season-opening major, suggesting the start may even have to be delayed if the air-quality around Melbourne.

Barty said most players would agree the timing of the tennis was less important than safety.

“First and foremost, the reason that there is smoke in the air is what’s most devastating at the moment for our country,” she said. “It’s just a really tough time. Tennis is a sport, it’s a game that we play, and there are certainly a lot of bigger things going on in Australia right now that we need to take care of.

“So, I mean, if it meant that we were delayed by a day or two … it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that Australians stay safe and we kind of sort out the bigger issues.”

Tennis “is a game that we love, yes, and we try and be the ultimate professionals and do everything that we can, but it is a game. You need to put things into perspective and worry about the bigger things in life first.”

Alycia Parks reaches 1st WTA quarterfinal in Ostrava

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OSTRAVA, Czech Republic — American qualifier Alycia Parks is having quite the breakthrough tournament in Ostrava.

The 21-year-old Parks earned her first win against a top-10 ranked opponent by beating fourth-seeded Maria Sakkari 5-7, 7-5, 7-5 at the Agel Open on Thursday to reach her first WTA Tour quarterfinal.

The 144th-ranked Parks ousted former No. 1 Karolina Pliskova in the opening round – her first win against a top-20 opponent – and showed off her power by hitting 59 winners against Sakkari, compared to just nine for her opponent.

“I came out here not expecting anything, just playing my game, and it got me through the match,” Parks said.

Parks will next face former French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova, who advanced via walkover when Belinda Bencic withdrew with a left foot injury.

Caty McNally, another American qualifier who is playing doubles with Parks in Ostrava, also reached the last eight by beating wild-card entry Karolina Muchova 6-1, 3-6, 6-1. McNally is also into her first WTA quarterfinal and will face top-ranked Iga Swiatek, who advanced Wednesday.

Djokovic beats Van de Zandschulp to reach Astana quarters

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ASTANA, Kazakhstan — Add Botic van de Zandschulp to the long list of players to have been schooled by Novak Djokovic.

Djokovic eased past Van de Zandschulp 6-3, 6-1 on Thursday in his first career meeting with the 27-year-old Dutchman to reach the quarterfinals of the Astana Open.

Van de Zandschulp earned one break point in each set but couldn’t seriously threaten Djokovic, who is looking for a second straight indoor hardcourt title after winning in Tel Aviv last week.

“(In the) second set I think I started to read his serve better and just started swinging through the court more,” Djokovic said. “Botic is a quality tennis player. When he has time, he can hurt you, so I tried to take away that time from him and I’m very pleased with the way I played, particularly in the second.”

Djokovic will next face Karen Khachanov, who rallied to beat Marin Cilic 2-6, 6-3, 6-3. If the 21-time Grand Slam champion gets past that one, he could come up against fellow former No. 1 Daniil Medvedev. The second-seeded Russian beat Emil Ruusuvuori of Finland 6-3, 6-2 to move one match away from a potential rematch of last year’s U.S. Open final, when Medvedev beat Djokovic to deny his attempt at a calendar-year Grand Slam.

Medvedev will first have to beat Roberto Bautista Agut, who advanced Wednesday.