Australian Open organisers and Channel Seven have copped international condemnation for choosing Maria Sharapova to conduct the women’s draw for the 2018 tournament.
Tournament director Craig Tiley has been forced to defend the Open’s stance of choosing the 2008 Australian Open champion to conduct the draw less than two years since she tested positive to banned substance meldonium.
Sharapova served a 15-month doping ban for that positive test after she took the controversial medication during the 2016 Australian Open.
Organisers were not able to call on the services of other past champions who are still active players, with the likes of Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka absent and Angelique Kerber indisposed at the Sydney International.
The topic of her failed drugs test was the big elephant in the room as Sharapova and Channel Seven interviewer Hamish McLachlan skirted around the issue.
In the interview, McLachlan labelled Sharapova’s drugs suspension as a “time out”.
“What benefited you the most during your time out, the mind or the body?” he asked.
“Did you have a break given that you hadn’t really put a racquet down for 20 years?”
“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,” Sharapova 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.”
The reaction worldwide was not favourable.
The Daily Mail’s Mike Dickson said honouring Sharapova held the same class as Australia’s “four-fingered salute” during the victory ceremony at the close of the men’s Ashes series in Sydney.
“It is true that Sharapova has a rare pulling power — especially when Serena Williams is indisposed — but small wonder that the outside world looks in and questions whether tennis takes anti-doping seriously enough,” Dickson wrote.
“Wheeling her out had all the graciousness of Monday’s final Ashes presentation in Sydney, which featured those giant, nationally-coloured hands with erect fingers reminding everyone of the 4-0 score line.”
Kevin Mitchell of the Irish times described the interview as “the easiest of rides”, while The Times’ Stuart Fraser said Sharapova’s “time out” was “referred to as though it was a break of her choosing”.
“It is another shameful episode in which tennis has rolled out the red carpet for a doping offender,” Fraser wrote.
“To hell, apparently, with a message of deterrence for any player tempted to indulge in banned substances.”
Organisers wanted a former champion to conduct draw
Tiley said organisers always want a former champion to conduct the draw, and because of ongoing tournaments and other commitments, the 10-year anniversary of Sharapova’s victory in Melbourne was the perfect opportunity to opt for the Russian.
“The challenge we always have this week is the Sydney event and the Hobart event,” he said.
“In fairness to Maria, the adjudication has occurred on that.
“It’s the 10-year anniversary of her winning [in Melbourne], the 30-year anniversary of Melbourne Park and the 50th anniversary of Billie Jean King, since she’s won it.