Fixing concerns grow as Nadal, Venus out in first round
Rafael Nadal crashed out of the Australian Open first round after a five-set thriller against Fernando Verdasco Tuesday, increasing fears about his ability to add to his 14 Grand Slam titles.
In only his second first-round loss at a major tournament, the oft-injured 29-year-old fought for four hours, 41 minutes before the inspired Verdasco won 7-6 (8/6), 4-6, 3-6, 7-6 (7/4), 6-2.
It was one of the worst ever Grand Slam performances for Nadal, who also lost in the 2013 Wimbledon first round and has not won a major title since the 2014 French Open. “It’s tough, but at the same time, I know I did everything that I can to be ready for it,” Nadal said. “Was not my day. Let’s keep going. That’s the only thing.
“There is no more thing to do than keep practising hard, keep practising the same way that I was doing the last four, five months.”
Nadal can at least take heart that the Australian Open has historically been his toughest Grand Slam tournament, with his only win coming against Roger Federer in 2009.
That year, he fought off Verdasco in another five-set epic which clocked in at five hours, 14 minutes -- the second longest match in tournament history -- in the semi-finals. But the following year, he limped out of his 2010 quarter-final with Andy Murray during the third set with a knee injury.
In 2011, Nadal was troubled by a thigh injury as he went down in straight sets in the quarter-finals to fellow Spaniard David Ferrer. Three years later Nadal was hit by a back problem when he lost to Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka in the final and last year he was bounced out by Tomas Berdych in straight sets in the quarters.
On Tuesday, Verdasco looked headed for the exit when he trailed 0-2 early in the fifth set, only to reel off six straight games to snatch only his third victory in 17 encounters with Nadal.
Verdasco, the world number 45, was on fire with his thumping forehand, hitting 41 forehand winners among a total of 90 outright winners. His all-or-nothing approach was shown by his 91 unforced errors as he trailed Nadal by two sets to one in an awesome hitting display on Rod Laver Arena.
“I think today’s match was kind of like very similar in terms of the (2009) semi, going to a fifth set,” Verdasco said.
“Of course at the beginning of the fifth I was thinking about that semi-final. I didn’t want to lose and after that break, I started playing really good, hitting very hard serve, forehand, and not making many mistakes.
“So I was very happy with the way that I finished the match.” Verdasco broke Nadal’s serve five times, while losing his service on six occasions in the battle of the left-handers. His reward is a second round clash with Israel’s Dudi Sela.
Andy Murray and Garbine Muguruza raced into the Australian Open second round but Venus Williams was a major casualty as match-fixing claims continued to shake the Grand Slam tournament.
On another sizzling day in Melbourne, sweat-drenched Murray doused the challenge of exciting German prospect Alexander Zverev 6-1, 6-2, 6-3 to get his campaign underway. Last year’s runner-up is hoping to become the first man in the Open-era to win a Grand Slam title after losing the final four times, and Zverev, 18, proved no match for the world number two.
“Alex fought right through to the last point so he made it very competitive at the end in tough conditions today,” said the Scot. “It was very hot today so I was very glad to get it done in straight sets.”
Muguruza wasted little time as she beat Estonian debutante Anett Kontaveit 6-0, 6-4 in one hour exactly -- and immediately set her sights on dethroning Serena Williams in the final. “To win the Grand Slam here you are going to have to beat Serena (Williams). It will be great if I can play against her,” said the confident Spanish world number three.
Temperatures of 33 Celsius (91.4 Fahrenheit) took their toll and Diego Schwartzman was stretchered off after retiring in the fourth set against John Millman with cramps.
Match-fixing speculation also continued to reverberate on day two as more players revealed approaches after a BBC and BuzzFeed report said corruption was widespread in the sport. The latest developments come after the BBC and BuzzFeed, citing leaked documents, said 16 players who have reached the top 50 had repeatedly fallen under suspicion without facing action. “More than half” of the players, who include singles and doubles Grand Slam champions, are at the Australian Open in Melbourne, according to BuzzFeed.
While Murray and Muguruza motored through, seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams suffered an early exit when she lost to British number one Johanna Konta 6-4, 6-2. Williams, 35, was the oldest player in the women’s draw but Konta said it would be “silly” to focus on the American’s age. “I think it would be silly to look at Venus’ age and somehow consider that as a reflection of her level,” said the 24-year-old.
“I think it’s irrelevant how old she is because she’s such a champion with so much experience and so much knowledge about the game.”
Milos Raonic, who is now working with Carlos Moya and beat Roger Federer in this month’s Brisbane final, breezed past Lucas Pouille and into the second round.
But it was a different story for Gilles Muller, who came through four tie-breaks to beat Fabio Fognini, but not before the Italian showed flashes of his famous temper.
Jeremy Chardy had an even bigger struggle, winning the fifth-set 13-11 to finally overcome Ernests Gulbis after four hours and 43 minutes.
World number two Simona Halep was sensationally dumped at the first hurdle Tuesday by Chinese qualifier Zhang Shuai, who earned her first Grand Slam win in 15 attempts. The Romanian, who has been struggling with a niggling achilles injury, had no answers to Zhang’s dominant baseline game with the Chinese number four scoring a stunning 6-4, 6-3 win on Margaret Court Arena.
Australian Open under match-fixing scrutiny
More players revealed match-fixing approaches on Tuesday as the Australian Open Grand Slam tournament came under close scrutiny following claims that corruption in tennis was widespread.
Australia’s Thanasi Kokkinakis said he had been targeted through social media, while a British former Davis Cup player said he was once offered an envelope stuffed with cash to throw a match.
According to Australian media, police are also monitoring the first round of the Australian Open, currently under way in Melbourne, for suspicious results. The latest developments come after the BBC and BuzzFeed, citing leaked documents, said 16 players who have reached the top 50 had repeatedly fallen under suspicion without facing action.
“More than half” of the players, who include singles and doubles Grand Slam champions, are at the Australian Open in Melbourne, according to BuzzFeed.
The controversy is just the latest to hit the sports world after allegations of doping cover-ups rocked athletics and football body FIFA was engulfed by a string of corruption scandals. On Monday,
Serbian world number one Novak Djokovic detailed a 200,000 match-fixing approach earlier in his career surrounding a tournament in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Tennis authorities strongly denied covering up any match-fixing evidence, but they are likely to come under increasing pressure to act against what is a threat to the sport’s integrity.
In another indication that match-fixers are preying on tennis players, 19-year-old Kokkinakis, the world number 86, told Australia’s 3AW that he had been approached through Facebook. “Just these randoms (people) from nowhere saying ‘I’ll pay you this much money to tank a game’. I try and block it and get rid of that stuff and focus on what you need to do,” he said.
Separately, Britain’s Arvind Parmar said he turned down a cash-stuffed envelope which was offered to him an hour before a match at a Challenger tournament in the Netherlands in 2004. “I was offered an envelope full of euros to lose in two sets, only an hour before I was due on court,” Parmar, 37, told The Times.
“I was approached by a random guy as I was coming off the practice courts. He showed me the money and said that I had to lose in two sets.
“He seemed anxious, nervous, and after a few quick words he began trying to press an envelope stuffed with euros into my hand.
“It was a substantial amount of money -- tens of thousands -- way more than I would have earned from winning the tournament and more than most players at that level would make in a year.”
An unnamed former tennis trader for a bookmaking company also told The Times that he suspected matches were fixed “on a regular basis, particularly towards the end of the season” because of irregular movements in the betting odds. Melbourne’s The Age newspaper said police, aware the BBC and BuzzFeed report was about to be released, had quizzed people within tennis about which first-round matches at the Australian Open might be at risk.
The Australian Open’s first round, featuring 256 men’s and women’s singles players, concludes on Tuesday which is day two of the tournament at Melbourne Park.