Australian Open director Craig Tiley has had to defend the decision to welcome Maria Sharapova back with overt flattery — less than two years since she tested positive to a banned substance at Melbourne Park in 2016.
The Australian Open has a long tradition of giving former champions the honor of conducting the Open draw. Men’s 2017 champion Roger Federer was also at Margaret Court Arena to conduct the men’s draw.
Tiley said Sharapova was the only former champion available to conduct the women’s draw.
However, the sight of Sharapova walking out onto the arena floor carrying the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup has not sat well with some tennis commentators.
“We wanted to have a former champion,” Tiley said. “The challenge we always have this week is there is the (concurrent) Sydney event, the Hobart event and there are also other events. As part of the tradition, we have the former champions.
“In fairness to Maria, the adjudication (on a 15-month ban) has occurred on that. She’s a former champion at the Australian Open, 10 years ago. Like it’s the 30-year anniversary of this great Melbourne Park, and Billie Jean King arrived this morning. It is [50 years] since she won. Maria deserved the opportunity.”
With Serena Williams recovering from complications from her pregnancy, Victoria Azarenka unable to leave the United States following the birth of her child and German Angelique Kerber still competing at the Sydney International, Tiley said Sharapova was the only option.
The on-court interview — given by Australia Channel 7’s Hamish McLachlan — was viewed also viewed as too soft.
“What benefited you the most during your time out, the mind or the body” he asked Sharapova. “Did you have a break given that you hadn’t really put a racket down for 20 years?”
She responded by also neglecting to mention her drugs suspension, referring to her time away from tennis as a “period of time”.
“I took a couple of months off of not training and not playing, which for me was just so unreal because since the age of four that’s really all I did,” she said. “I think the maximum of time that I would take off, apart from having shoulder surgery a few years back, was maybe just a couple of weeks at a time.
“So maybe, having that period of time, just for my mind, I was able to do other things in my life and study. I was able to do some internships and what may people would say was a normal life, which I’ve never actually gotten to experience so to have that — even though it wasn’t in the way that I wanted it to — it did bring a lot of normalcy into my life and to be able to share things and holidays and to actually be there with my friends and family.
“Those are things I miss when I’m on the tour for 10 months out of the year.”
Some tennis commentators have voiced their displeasure with the tournament’s decision.
Sharapova has received mixed reactions from other players and crowds since her return last summer. The 30-year-old Russian started to find success at the end of 2017. She reached the fourth round of the US Open and followed that up with a title at the Tianjin Open in China.
Sharapova is unseeded and will face Tatjana Maria in the first round of the Australian Open.