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Europeans unravel massive tennis match-fixing ring

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PARIS — The crooked tennis players knew him as “Maestro.” To European investigators, the Armenian based in Belgium is emerging as the suspected ringleader of an organized gambling syndicate suspected of fixing hundreds of matches and paying off more than 100 players from around Europe.

As Roger Federer and other stars at the top of tennis compete in the Australian Open, players far lower down the sport’s food chain are being questioned this week by police in France on suspicion of fixing matches for Grigor Sargsyan, 28-year-old known as the Maestro, investigators said. Sargsyan is being held in a Belgian jail.

The picture emerging from months of digging by police working across Europe is of a massive match-fixing scheme, organized via encrypted messaging, involving dozens of low-ranked players in small tournaments with little prize money. Police say Sargsyan employed mules, people hired for a few euros (dollars) to place bets for the syndicate that were small enough to slip under the radar of gambling watchdogs.

Sources close to the investigation, all speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss details publicly, said four French players were in police custody on Wednesday and at least one of them told investigators that he fixed around two dozen matches for Sargsyan.

They named the players as Jules Okala, 21; Mick Lescure, 25; Yannick Thivant, 31; and Jerome Inzerillo, 28. None operated in the highest spheres of tennis. The career-best singles ranking of any of them was 354, reached by Inzerillo in 2012. The arrests of Okala and Lescure were first reported Wednesday by French sports newspaper L’Equipe.

A dozen or more other French players are expected to be questioned in coming weeks. An investigator said France was one of the countries “hardest hit” by the syndicate, which targeted lower-level pro tournaments. Okala and Lescure were detained before they were to play in a modest tournament in Bressuire, western France, this week that offers a total of $15,000 in prize money.

Investigators have also questioned players in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Slovakia, and Bulgaria and are looking to question others, including both players and managers, in the United States, Chile and Egypt.

In all, more than 100 players are suspected of having worked with the syndicate, fixing matches, sets or games in exchange for payments of 500 to 3,000 euros ($570 to $3,400).

“The impression we’re getting is that it is very commonplace,” one official told The Associated Press. Another said several hundred matches are thought to have been fixed.

Investigators fear that players used by the syndicate could suck others into the scheme and could go on to infect bigger tournaments if they climb higher in the rankings.

“In time, they could be managers of other new players or trainers so we have to get them out of the system, or they could corrupt others in a few years,” one official told The Associated Press.

Sargsyan was swept up in a wave of arrests in Belgium last June and faces organized crime, match fixing, money laundering and forgery charges. A suspected banker for the syndicate also faces money laundering and organized crime charges, while four others are being investigated for illegal gambling and finding mules, who are thought to have been paid for placing modest bets for the syndicate on matches that it fixed.

Because the bets were small, the risk of detection was “almost zero,” but the profits could still be considerable if many bets were placed, one official said.

Still unclear is whether the Belgium-based syndicate was linked to another match-fixing and gambling operation, also involving Armenians, unraveled in Spain . Spanish police last week announced that 28 professional tennis players, including one who participated in last year’s U.S. Open, were linked to that ring, taking bribes to fix results that the group bet on using fake identities.

Yevgenia Medvedeva’s long shot is Rostelecom Cup; TV, live stream schedule

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Yevgenia Medvedeva‘s situation going into this week’s Rostelecom Cup: fend off her ex-coach’s newest young teenage jumper, or miss qualifying for the most exclusive competition in figure skating for a second straight year.

Medvedeva, who at this stage in the last Olympic cycle began her senior-level dominance, again searches for consistency at this week’s Grand Prix stop in Moscow, streaming live for NBC Sports Gold subscribers.

The 19-year-old last won a top-level international competition two years ago, her final victory of a two-year win streak that included two world titles. An Olympic silver medal followed, then a messy breakup with coach Eteri Tutberidze and a move to Toronto to train under Brian Orser.

Medvedeva failed to qualify for last season’s six-skater Grand Prix Final in her new environment. She rebounded to place third at the world championships, but the start of this Grand Prix season brought more short-program struggles.

She stumbled out of a double Axel landing, then fell and slid into the boards on a triple Lutz at Skate Canada three weeks ago. She ended up fifth overall, making her a long shot for December’s Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest competition of the year after March’s world championships.

To get to the six-skater Final, Medvedeva must win this week and get some help in the standings from other skaters either in Moscow or at next week’s NHK Trophy.

It’s a difficult task given the Rostelecom field includes the world’s top-ranked skater: Alexandra Trusova, a 15-year-old who is part of the Tutberidze group that also includes the other two Grand Prix winners this fall.

Trusova outscored Medvedeva by 31.4 points at Skate Canada, soaring to the title in her senior Grand Prix debut on the power of three quadruple jumps. She became the youngest Grand Prix winner in eight years and an early favorite to become the youngest world champion since Tara Lipinski in 1997.

Medvedeva racked up dominant wins in the last cycle by putting all of her triple jumps in the second half of programs (new rules since took away this bonus). But in the last year, skaters arrived on the senior scene armed with quads and triple Axels that neither Medvedeva nor Olympic champion Alina Zagitova have landed in competition.

Other notables in this week’s field include U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell, who will have a chance at the Grand Prix Final if she can make a second straight Grand Prix podium. And Japanese Satoko Miyahara, a two-time world medalist who was second at Cup of China last week.

The men’s field is wide open given headliner Shoma Uno, the Olympic silver medalist, is coming off an eighth-place finish at his last event. Russia has the top-ranked pairs’ and dance entries in Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy and Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov.

Rostelecom Cup Broadcast Schedule

Day Time (ET) Event Network
Friday 6 a.m. Men’s Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
8 a.m. Rhythm Dance NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
10:30 a.m. Women’s Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
12:30 p.m. Pairs’ Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Saturday 5:30 a.m. Men’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
7:30 a.m. Free Dance NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
9:30 a.m. Women’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
11:45 a.m. Pairs’ Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Sunday 12-1:30 p.m. Highlights NBC | STREAM LINK

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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U.S. beats Japan in Olympic baseball qualifier, may still need help

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The U.S. handed Japan its first loss in the Premier12 global Olympic baseball qualifier, at the Tokyo Dome no less, but now the Americans must root for the host nation.

The Americans, with a roster mostly of Double-A and Triple-A players, won 4-3 over a Japanese team that includes some of its domestic league’s biggest stars like two-time Central League MVP Yoshihiro Maru and veteran shortstop Hayato Sakamoto.

Outfielder Jo Adell, MLB Pipeline’s top-ranked prospect on the U.S. team, starred by reaching base four times with a home run.

Japan is already qualified for baseball’s Olympic return as the host nation.

The U.S., meanwhile, has a sense of urgency at Premier12, the first of a possible three tournaments in which it could clinch an Olympic spot.

At Premier12, the top-ranked nation from North and South America qualifies for the Olympics. The tournament is at the super-round stage of the final six teams, and two are from the Americas: the U.S. and Mexico.

The top four nations after each has played five games advance to gold- and bronze-medal games.

Mexico already beat the U.S. and ran its super-round record to 3-0 on Tuesday, clinching a spot in the medal round.

The U.S. moved to 1-2 in the super round on Tuesday and must at least get into the same medal-round game as Mexico to keep its hope of finishing as the top team from the Americas.

Japan could help, since it plays Mexico on Wednesday. If Mexico beats Japan, the Mexicans clinch a spot in the gold-medal game, which would put more pressure on the U.S. to win its last two games (vs. Australia on Wednesday and Chinese Taipei on Friday). Even then, South Korea would get into the gold-medal game if it wins out.

If the U.S. is not the top team from the Americas at Premier12, it can still earn an Olympic berth in March. But then it faces trying to come up with a roster at the end of MLB’s spring training rather than during the offseason. MLB teams may be less inclined to release minor leaguers.

“That’ll be a delicate dance,” U.S. general manager Eric Campbell said before Premier12.

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