Dominic Thiem feeling optimistic again after Madrid boost

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MADRID — Dominic Thiem is leaving Madrid with his confidence boosted despite falling short of the final.

Thiem returned to action at the Madrid Open after taking a break to recharge ahead of the French Open later this month.

He couldn’t get past the semifinals in the Spanish capital, losing to Alexander Zverev in two sets. But it was further than Thiem had imagined reaching after a difficult start to his year.

“In general, I’m super happy with the week,” Thiem said. “I would have never expected to be in the semifinals, to play in the semifinals against a player like him. I cannot complain about anything.”

The fourth-ranked Austrian hasn’t won a tournament since breaking through with his first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open in September. He then lost in the early rounds in Doha and Dubai, and decided it was time to take a break.

Thiem said the coronavirus pandemic also played a part in his decision to take time off – because it was “mentally a little bit more demanding to be in a bubble, to play in front of empty seats” – but his lack of motivation played a greater role.

“The main reason was that I won the first major, that I reached basically my lifetime goal,” Thiem said. “So, of course, it’s tough to just continue like before. That was the main reason, that I just had to, well, think about it, regroup myself. That took a little bit of time.”

He said he wasn’t really sure how he would perform on his return but was pleasantly surprised with his game. He started in Madrid with a couple of straight-set wins over Marcos Giron and Alex de Minaur, then rallied to defeat John Isner in three sets to reach the semifinals.

“It was a way better result than I expected,” the 27-year-old Thiem said. “Playing-wise and physically wise I expected to be in a decent shape. But, of course, there are still many things to improve just to keep all intensity for all the week, day in, day out … But I’m very optimistic that every week I’m playing now it’s going to improve. Especially for the confidence it was important to get a great result here.”

Thiem will next play in Rome before returning to the French Open, where he was a finalist in 2018 and 2019.

“Of course, there are many things to improve for next week and then for the weeks after, as well,” he said. “Just try to get to Rome, get some good practices in there, then hopefully play even better than here in Madrid.”

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.