Defending champion Daniil Medvedev made a strong start to the Shanghai Masters on Saturday, with his main rival, top seed Carlos Alcaraz, due to launch his campaign later.
The world number three beat Chile’s Cristian Garin in straight sets 6-3, 6-3 to proceed breezily to the third round.
Garin put up a valiant fight, with several hard-fought rallies inducing gasps from the crowd, but ultimately the 98th-ranked player struggled with the Russian’s relentless pace.
“(There’s a) long tournament ahead, with a lot of strong players, starting from my next match,” said Medvedev at the end.
“But the goal for sure is to try and win this beautiful trophy one more time.”
Medvedev won the 2019 title, but for the next three years the tournament was cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I’m definitely happy to be back in Shanghai,” he said. “I honestly feel great and I want to stay here as long as possible.”
Medvedev is popular with Chinese fans, a chemistry on display when the indoor match was interrupted briefly when a red-and-white butterfly distracted the Russian from serving.
The crowd giggled as he played up his surprise for comic effect, before carefully handing over the insect, which had settled on one of his tennis balls, to great applause.
Fourth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas is also through to the next round after a straightforward job dispatching Australian qualifier Rinky Hijikata 6-4, 6-2.
“In the beginning of a tournament, it takes some time to get the pace and rhythm of how things flow,” Tsitsipas said.
“I was very confident and very sure of what I was doing and what I was following and it worked out pretty well.”
World number two Alcaraz was also in action later, playing France’s Gregoire Barrere.
Alcaraz is looking to close the gap on the absent Novak Djokovic at the top of the rankings with strong performances in China.
But he was disappointed in Beijing by Italy’s Jannik Sinner, who defeated him in the semi-final before going on to beat Medvedev and take the China Open title.
Haris Rauf’s BBL participation uncertain as PCB delays NOC: report
Pakistan pacer Haris Rauf’s participation in the Big Bash League 2023-24 is met with a potential hurdle as the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) is expected to delay the issuance of the No-Objection Certificate (NOC) required for his engagement in the league.
According to ESPNCricinfo, Rauf’s NOC is likely to face a delay until at least December 11, just four days after the start of the BBL. There is no confirmation of an immediate issuance thereafter.
The explanation for the delay revolves around the ongoing National T20 Cup in Pakistan, scheduled until December 10, which the PCB expects Haris Rauf to fully engage in.
Last week, Wahab Riaz, Pakistan’s recently appointed chief selector, disclosed that Rauf had declined participation in Pakistan’s Test series in Australia scheduled for December-January.
Wahab openly expressed his displeasure at Rauf’s decision, with both sides differing on the events leading up to this point. Reportedly, the 30-year-old cited his inexperience in Test cricket as the reason for not agreeing to play in Australia. Rauf conveyed to Wahab that focusing on his white-ball game and fitness would be more beneficial.
Rauf’s potential absence from the BBL could raise concerns, especially for Melbourne Stars, who had enlisted him as a key player. Initially, it was expected that Rauf would only miss the BBL during Pakistan’s five-match T20 series in New Zealand in mid-January. However, further delays may disrupt the league’s plans.
Melbourne Stars had introduced special memberships named “House of Rauf” for the initial three games at the MCG this year, along with a dedicated seating zone called Haris Rauf Bay.
Ongoing delays in Rauf’s NOC issuance may raise concerns among Pakistan’s centrally contracted players in general. Two more players, Usama Mir (Melbourne Stars) and Zaman Khan (Sydney Thunder), are also selected for the league.
Contract discussions between the PCB and the players faced obstacles, partly due to disagreements over the number of foreign leagues players could participate in annually. They seem to have settled on a limit of two leagues, contingent on the PCB issuing an NOC for participation.
The BBL is set to start from December 7, 2023, to January 24 2024.
Sinner savours ‘special’ Davis Cup triumph
Italy won the Davis Cup for the first time since 1976 as Jannik Sinner crushed Alex de Minaur 6-3, 6-0 to seal a 2-0 win over Australia on Sunday in Malaga.
The world number four clinched victory in the second singles rubber after Matteo Arnaldi dug deep to beat Alexei Popyrin 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 in the opening clash.
Sinner, who remarkably beat top-ranked superstar Novak Djokovic twice in one day on Saturday as Italy eliminated Serbia, secured his country’s second title against Lleyton Hewitt’s 28-time winners in style.
“I felt quite good today … this is a really important win for me, the whole team and Italy together,” said Sinner.
“This is something different, really special, because you don’t play for yourself, you play for the whole team.”
The Italian demoralised the scampering De Minaur with a relentless performance, overpowering him with vicious ground-strokes to the delight of the majority of the packed Martin Carpena arena.
Sinner had won each of the five prior meetings between the pair and the world number 12 came no closer this time, brutally dismantled in 81 minutes.
Australia’s wait for a Davis Cup trophy goes on, with their last coming in 2003, but Italy, who last reached a final in 1998, celebrated wildly when De Minaur went wide to end the tie.
On Saturday Italy were on the verge of elimination, but Sinner saved three match points against Djokovic to force a deciding doubles clash.
“Yesterday we were one point away from being out and now we can celebrate winning, I think we can all be very, very happy,” said Sinner, after ending Italy’s 47-year wait, the third-longest gap between titles in Davis Cup history.
Sinner, who lost the ATP Finals showdown with Djokovic a week ago in Turin, deserves special credit for his stunning displays in Malaga – he won all five rubbers he played in.
Laser-focused from the start, he broke early in the first set for a 2-1 lead when De Minaur sent a lob long and then consolidated with a powerful forehand.
The 22-year-old brought up three set points and clinched the first set with the second of them when De Minaur volleyed beyond the baseline.
In the second set Sinner produced 19 winners to just five unforced errors to sweep to victory.
“I will find ways to get better, to be able to hurt these types of players,” said De Minaur, who also suffered disappointment with Australia in last year’s final.
“Today I just didn’t have enough.”
Arnaldi had to cling on to beat Popyrin in the first match.
“I think I won one of the most important matches in my life, I don’t know what to say right now,” said an emotional Arnaldi.
“I’m sorry for Alexei, because he deserved to win, for sure – he was playing better, but sometimes Davis is like this.”
Arnaldi, ranked 44th, exchanged breaks with Popyrin and converted his fourth set point to take a scrappy first stanza.
The Australian hit back strongly in the second, racing into a double break and holding for 4-0.
Arnaldi finally got on the board in the fifth game but Popyrin – who produced six aces in the second set to the Italian’s zero – served it out to force a decisive third.
The erratic Arnaldi saved break points in his first, second and fourth service games without putting pressure on Popyrin’s serve until earning a break point which the 24-year-old saved, holding for 4-4.
Popyrin was on top but could not make it count to get the breakthrough, with Arnaldi saving yet another break point on his way to a 5-4 lead.
Despite being outplayed for the best part of the third set, Arnaldi converted his first set point to put Italy ahead in the tie with a powerful forehand, with Sinner completing the job without a fuss.
“(Sinner) backed up what he did yesterday against Novak and played extremely good tennis,” said Hewitt, who played for Australia last time they won the cup 20 years ago.
“I think the conditions and surface suit him perfectly, as well, which makes life pretty tough.”
Victory completed a superb year for Italian tennis, after their women’s team finished as runners-up in the Billie Jean King Cup.
‘Bulgarian football needs shock therapy’
Bulgaria’s failure to qualify for Euro 2024, extending the 1994 World Cup semi-finalists’ absence from major finals to two decades, has sparked demands from fans and analysts for radical change at the helm of the football federation.
Thousands of supporters gathered outside the stadium where Bulgaria were playing Hungary in a Euro qualifier on November 16, shouting “Resignation!” in reference to Borislav Mihaylov, the Bulgarian Football Union (BFU) president for 18 years.
Police used water cannons and batons to disperse the crowd and several dozen fans and police were injured in the violent clashes that followed.
“Mihaylov’s time as BFU president has left football in ruins. He doesn’t care about sport, only money and his own interests,” CSKA fan Chavdar Tanev, 72, told AFP at the protest.
BFU’s request for UEFA to order the game to be played behind closed doors in a bid to prevent fans from protesting against Mihaylov – a request to which European football’s governing body agreed – was the final straw, he added.
“The decline under Mihaylov is so obvious, we’re ashamed of the state of the sport. They’ve chased fans away from the stadiums,” said Levski fan Mihail Raychev, 36.
As accusations rained down on him, Mihaylov, 60, said he refused to be “a scapegoat” for violence and accused those behind it of being “paid provocateurs”.
He has called a meeting of the BFU executive committee but it is unclear if a resignation will follow.
The former national team captain and goalkeeper is part of a generation of players who were once national heroes after leading Bulgaria to fourth place at the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
The last international tournament Bulgaria reached was Euro 2004.
When Mihaylov was first elected a year later in 2005, fans regarded him as “the face of change” after the previous BFU president was voted out following an international corruption scandal, long-time sports journalist Stanil Yotov told AFP.
“Back then we thought that things were bad, we hardly had any idea how much worse they can get,” Yotov said.
Mihaylov’s reign has been dogged by allegations about match-fixing and illegal betting, including a FIFA investigation of a rigged national team friendly against Estonia in 2011, and revelations about alleged misuse of state funds.
He resigned after a scandal about racist chanting at a Euro 2020 qualifier against England in October 2019 but later withdrew his decision and won a fifth term.
“It’s the foundations of our football that are totally wrong,” Yotov said.
Bulgaria’s national team has had 15 coaches during Mihaylov’s time as BFU chief and failed to qualify for any major tournament.
Yotov blamed lack of investment in infrastructure, corruption and neglect in youth football training schools and the reluctance of professional teams to foster local talent, instead hiring too many foreigners.
He says there must be a national conference on football to map out a strategy to lift the sport out of the doldrums.
“Bulgarian football needs shock therapy,” Petar Ganev of the Institute for Market Economy wrote in a recent opinion piece.
“In economics, this is a term used when an abrupt change in multiple components of the governance model is required through a package of bold policies and measures.”
The overhaul must include public investment in stadiums, a new way for collective management of television rights and better transparency of club ownership, Ganev added.
Oligarchs had been ordered by politicians to provide financially for ailing clubs in the past.
“What in our country is functioning well so that we expect from football to be doing well,” Gallup International political analyst Parvan Simeonov said in a recent television interview.
Deepening social divisions and grave corruption in society as a whole have contributed to turning former heroes like Mihaylov into anti-heroes, he added.
“Like the country, like its football,” the elderly fan Tanev also said bitterly.
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