An eerie chill has settled over the 2016 Australian Open. And it is not just the changing weather that has persuaded players to turn up their collars against further unpleasant developments on day four.
Lingering claims of match-fixing – imagined, ancient, unproven or perhaps even legitimate – have sent mild panic through the locker room, not to mention the executive boardrooms of TV stations, high-end sponsors and the game’s administrators. It has been a surreal couple of days. Players now not only check their racket strings and water bottles, they have to keep an eye on their algorithms – a word that Andy Murray, for one, had never heard before this week.
On Thursday he voiced the concerns of many when he said it was hard to tell when this unwanted cloud would move on and what the eventual damage would look like.
“I don’t know, I have no idea,” the world No2 said after destroying the Australian power-server Sam Groth 6-0, 6-4, 6-1 in an hour and a half to reach the third round.
“I think a lot of people will want a lot of answers to what’s being reported. For anyone who is innocent, whose name gets talked about, then you for sure feel sorry for them if they have done nothing wrong. Especially during an event like this, it’s very distracting.
“But you also want to be competing in a clean sport as well. So sometimes asking questions, and the players being open about it and responding to it, and the people who are high up in the ATP [Association of Tennis Professionals] and the ITF [International Tennis Federation] and TIU [Tennis Integrity Unit] talking about it, is also a good thing.”
Novak Djokovic rode the first wave of accusations on Wednesday night, denying what appear to be unsubstantiated claims in an Italian newspaper that day, and on Thursday one website went further out on a shaky limb, speculating on the identities of 15 players who are said to have been under surveillance because of unusual shifts in betting patterns in some of their matches over several years.
The Serb handled it deftly. Others are not so sanguine, angry that it is still an issue, with no proof to bolster the suspicions of their accusers.
Lleyton Hewitt was one player who was never going to leave this turbulent party quietly. Not only was he said by a confidant to be “in a rage” about the latest scattergun allegations that lumped him in with other “suspects” (and which was subsequently deconstructed as fanciful by a rival website), but he had to deal with David Ferrer, an opponent as stubborn as himself in his 877th and final match as a professional, albeit $20m to the good after more than two decades of extraordinary commitment, to lost causes as well as those within his talented grasp.
“I think it’s a joke to deal with it,” Hewitt said later of the list of 15. “There’s no possible way. I know my name’s now been thrown into it. I don’t think anyone here would think that I’ve done anything – corruption or match-fixing. It’s just absurd. For anyone that tries to go any further with it, then good luck. Take me on with it. Yeah, it’s disappointing. I think throwing my name out there with it makes the whole thing an absolute farce.”
Murray added, however: “If it’s never discussed and nobody ever hears a thing about it, I don’t think that’s good either. Maybe some people see it as a negative for the sport in some ways. I think some positives can come from it as well, providing the appropriate people act in the right way and are pro-active with whatever they are doing moving forward.”
On court, it took Hewitt an hour and 23 minutes to put any scoreboard pressure on Ferrer, a set and 3-4 down when he got his first break point in their second-round war on the showpiece Rod Laver court, then another and another and another. But all the grit in the Australian’s 34-year-old bones was not enough to hold the Spaniard to the mat.
Ferrer survived nine deuce points to take a two-set lead and went on to close out the match, and Hewitt’s career, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 in two hours and 28 minutes. Murray, meanwhile, comes away from an artful dismantling of Groth’s tennis – with lobs, delicate passing shots and a solid, penetrative serve his weapons of choice – to prepare for the altogether different challenge of the talented young Portuguese João Sousa, who earlier accounted for the Colombian Santiago Giraldo, despite committing 41 unforced errors in a 6-3, 7-5, 3-6, 6-1 win.
In the first round Murray saw off the aggressive young German prodigy Alexander Zverev, before teasing Groth into submission on a mild Thursday afternoon.
“They’re three very, very different players,” Murray said.
“Zverez in comparison to Sousa has a huge serve and a fantastic backhandwhile Sousa doesn’t serve as well but moves terrifically well and uses his forehand more. Groth is the opposite to both of them, coming forward all the time, using a lot of slice and attacking as much as possible.
“I worked on a lot of passing shots and lobs and did a lot on my return, because I knew that was going to be important against Groth, whereas although in the next round those things will still be important, I’m aware that there’s going to be a lot of longer rallies and it’s about being more solid and consistent from the back of the court.
“This time we’ll spend more time in practice working on groundstrokes, which hopefully will stand me OK.”
Asked to reflect on Hewitt’s contribution to tennis, and whether he might have a protracted farewell when he eventually decides to wind up his own career, he said, “Everyone’s different in the way they want to go. Some like to finish on a home slam, some would go for Davis Cup, some just any home tournament.
“Then there’s some who’ll just choose to go at the end of the year, because they can’t be bothered doing another off-season, they realise the motivation’s not there and they just hang them up.
“All I know is I’d like to do it on my own terms, because I really hope it’s not an injury that stops me playing.”
He is not ready to stop playing here just yet and is showing the sort of tennis that should carry him deep into the second week, perhaps all the way after losing in four finals.
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