Andy Murray wins first match in nine months

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NEW YORK — Andy Murray wore a coronavirus-conscious mask on his way to the unusual, no-spectators setting and avoided handshakes when he left. In between, the three-time Grand Slam champion offered his usual mix of hustling and muttering.

Murray’s first match in nine months as he resumes his climb back from two hip operations came at the first ATP tournament for anyone in five months, a 7-6 (6), 3-6, 6-1 victory over Frances Tiafoe at the Western & Southern Open on Saturday.

“Physically, I thought I did pretty well,” said Murray, who won Wimbledon twice and the U.S. Open in 2012. “I moved maybe better than what I expected to.”

The men’s tennis tour had been suspended since March because of the pandemic; the resumption came at a hard-court event moved from its home in Ohio to the site of the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 31.

Murray moved into a second-round test against No. 5 seed Alexander Zverev. Other men advancing Saturday included two-time Grand Slam runner-up Kevin Anderson, Canadians Milos Raonic, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov, and Americans Taylor Fritz and Reilly Opelka.

“To have no sound during the whole match, it was really odd,” said No. 15 seed Auger-Aliassime, the first winner of an ATP match since March, 6-4, 6-1 against Nikoloz Basilashvili. “Obviously, we’re used to it in practice, but now it’s an important match, it’s a Masters 1000, and to have nobody, to have no crowd, it feels weird.”

Shapovalov had a similarly straightforward victory over 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic, winning the day’s last match 6-3, 6-3.

“I was ready. I was training … these last couple months and throughout the pandemic,” Shapovalov said. “It didn’t really faze me that I hadn’t played in a while.”

The women’s tour returned earlier this month, and among Saturday’s first-round results in New York was No. 13 seed Maria Sakkari’s 6-1, 6-3 win over 16-year-old Coco Gauff, while No. 9 Elena Rybakina was eliminated by Ekaterina Alexandrova 7-5, 7-6 (6), and 18-year-old Amanda Anisimova beat No. 11 Alison Riske 6-3, 6-3. Two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka defeated No. 15 Donna Vekic for her first tour win in a year, while 40-year-old Venus Williams lost to 20-year-old Dayana Yastremska 5-7, 6-2, 7-5.

Murray had surgery on his hip in January 2018, and again in January 2019, and while returned to action later last year, a pelvic problem prevented him from playing at the start of 2020.

There were stretches against Tiafoe – who pulled out of an exhibition event in Atlanta last month after testing positive for COVID-19 – where Murray looked as if he’d never left. That included when the former No. 1-ranked man erased a 5-2 hole in the tiebreaker to grab six of that set’s last seven points, capped by a down-the-line forehand passing shot.

After Tiafoe was better in the second set, Murray quickly regained control. He broke for a 2-0 edge in the third with some classic scrambling defense on a 13-stroke exchange until Tiafoe flubbed a volley.

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.