After COVID, Dimitrov wins in New York; women seeds 1-2 out

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NEW YORK — Two months after barely being able to walk while ill with COVID-19, Grigor Dimitrov played a professional tennis match at the Western & Southern Open on Sunday and — while the result was not what was most important — he won.

“I said to myself, `I’ll give it a try.’ Now I’m here playing a match today,” said Dimitrov, a 29-year-old from Bulgaria who was a U.S. Open semifinalist last year and is ranked No. 19. “Honestly, I’m just purely thankful that I’m even able to just be here, to participate. Forget about the match — I’m not even talking about tennis right now.”

He said he arrived in New York, the site for both the Western & Southern Open and the U.S. Open, just 1 1/2 days before taking the court for what turned out to be a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Ugo Humbert.

The women’s draw saw some big names exit on Day 2 at the hard-court tournament: No. 1 seed Karolina Pliskova, No. 2 Sofia Kenin and 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens. Pliskova, the 2016 U.S. Open runner-up who will be the top seed when the Grand Slam tournament begins Aug. 31, lost 7-5, 6-4 to Veronika Kudermetova; Kenin, who won the Australian Open this year, was upset by Alize Cornet 6-1, 7-6 (7); Stephens was eliminated by Caroline Garcia 6-3, 7-6 (4).

Dimitrov tested positive for the coronavirus in June while participating in a series of exhibitions in Croatia and Serbia organized by Novak Djokovic, who also got COVID-19. (Djokovic pulled out of the doubles event at the Western & Southern Open on Sunday, citing neck pain, but is still slated to compete in singles Monday.)

“The first week was just tragic. I started by just walking. I couldn’t really do any exercise. I could not lift weights. I couldn’t play tennis,” Dimitrov said, adding that he lost a lot of weight while sick.

“It was a really dark moment,” he said. “I’m not going to lie.”

Eventually, Dimitrov said, he would practice for 20 minutes at a time, then built that up in increments. Still, he was doubtful about getting back on tour at the Western & Southern Open, the first ATP tournament since tennis went on hiatus in March because of the pandemic.

Dimitrov said he hopes his experience with the coronavirus can serve as a bit of a cautionary tale for those who might not take the illness seriously.

“I just kind of wanted to show a message that it doesn’t matter, in a sense, `who you are,’ how fit you are and how healthy you eat and so on,” Dimitrov said. “This thing doesn’t ask anybody (those things). We’re all equal.”

Two seeded men exited: No. 10 Andrey Rublev, beaten 7-5, 3-6, 6-2 by Daniel Evans; and No. 13 Cristian Garin, a 6-4, 6-7 (8), 6-0 loser against Aljaz Bedene.

Men’s winners included No. 11 seed Karen Khachanov, whose 6-4, 6-4 victory began with his opponent, Alexander Bublik, trying an underhand serve; No 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas, No. 7 David Goffin, No. 9 Diego Schwartzman, No. 16 John Isner and American qualifier Marcos Giron, who beat Mackenzie McDonald 7-6 (2), 7-5 in a matchup between former college teammates at UCLA and next faces defending champion Daniil Medvedev.

Other women advancing included No. 12 Anett Kontaveit, No. 14 Elise Mertens, American qualifier CiCi Bellis and Jessica Pegula, a 7-6 (5), 6-4 winner against Jennifer Brady, who won her first WTA title last week at Lexington, Kentucky.

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.