MELBOURNE: It didn’t take long for the Australian Open to become controversial this year, although it had nothing to do with play on the courts.
On the first morning of Jan. 18, BBC and BuzzFeed News reports that match-fixing had gone unchecked in tennis overshadowed the start of the event known often as the “Happy Slam,” because of its laid-back nature. Officials twice held media conferences over the first 10 days to address the issue.
Back on the court there were early upsets, including the first-round losses by Rafael Nadal to Fernando Verdasco and No. 2-seeded Simona Halep’s defeat to Chinese qualifier and eventual quarterfinalist Zhang Shuai.
Here are some things we learned from this year’s tournament which again set records for its overall attendance of 720,363, breaking the previous mark of 703,899 set last year:
SERENA WILLIAMS CAN BE BEATEN: Against the odds, Angelique Kerber won the women’s final in three sets on Saturday, preventing Serena Williams from matching the Open era-leading 22 Grand Slam singles titles won by Steffi Graf (Margaret Court is the all-time leader with 24). Williams hadn’t dropped a set until the final but was surprisingly beaten for the second consecutive major. Her loss to Roberta Vinci in the semifinals of the U.S. Open prevented her from completing a calendar-year Grand Slam in 2015. “Everyone expects me to win every single match, every single day of my life,” Williams said. “As much as I would like to be a robot, I’m not.”
DJOKOVIC DOES IT AGAIN: Novak Djokovic beat Andy Murray in three sets in the men’s final, his sixth Australian Open championship equaling Roy Emerson for the most Grand Slam singles wins Down Under. Djokovic has 11 major titles and has won all six Australian finals he’s contested, and has lost only one of the last five majors — the French Open final to Stan Wawrinka. The French Open remains the only Grand Slam tournament he hasn’t won. “No doubt that I’m playing the best tennis of my life in the last 15 months,” he said.
MURRAY’S DISTRACTIONS: On the court, nothing much changed for Murray: another men’s final at Melbourne Park — his fifth — again ended in defeat. To have reached that far is perhaps surprising considering his preoccupations off-court. His wife, Kim, is due to have their first child soon and remained in Britain. Kim’s father, Nigel Sears, traveled to Australia as coach for Ana Ivanovic, but became ill and had to be rushed to a nearby hospital by ambulance while Murray was on court in his third-round match. “It’s been a tough few weeks for me away from the court,” Murray said, before turning his attention to his wife. “You’ve been a legend the last two weeks. Thank you so much for all your support,” he said, becoming emotional. “I’ll be on the next flight home.”
GOODBYE HEWITT: Lleyton Hewitt played in his 20th and last Australian Open before retiring to take up a position as Australia’s Davis Cup captain. He lost in the second round to eventual quarterfinalist David Ferrer, ending a career that included titles at the 2001 U.S. Open and 2002 at Wimbledon. “I gave everything I had, like always. I left nothing in the locker room. That’s something I can always be proud of,” Hewitt said after the Ferrer loss. On Sunday, just minutes before the Djokovic-Murray final, Hewitt, dressed in a business suit, did a lap of honor around the spectator concourse joined by other Australian tennis luminaries including Tony Roche, John Newcombe and Pat Rafter.
FINGERS POINTED: Hours before the tournament started, the BBC and BuzzFeed reported that 16 players, all ranked in the top 50 at some stage and including at least one Grand Slam champion, had played in matches that had been flagged with tennis authorities because of suspicious betting patterns. The reports also alleged tennis regulators hadn’t acted against those players. It prompted the tennis hierarchy to stage an urgent news conference to refute the allegations. Tennis officials later announced an independent review of the operations of the Tennis Integrity Unit, set up in 2008 by the Grand Slam tournaments, the ATP, WTA and ITF.