The Australian Open defended its decision to ask Maria Sharapova to carry the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup into the draw ceremony, arguing that she was the only former champion who had been available for the showpiece event.
Sharapova – whose last act at Melbourne Park was to provide a tainted urine sample in January 2016 – received a big build-up as she walked onto Margaret Court Arena with the trophy. An obsequious interview with Hamish McLachlan ensued, in which McLachlan referred to her “time out” as if she had taken a holiday rather than serving a 15-month doping ban.
In normal circumstances, defending champion Serena Williams would have appeared at the draw, but she is at home in Florida with her four-month-old daughter Alexis Olympia. And the only other former champion in this year’s event is Angelique Kerber, who is due to appear in the semi-finals at the Sydney International on Friday.
Asked why Sharapova had been chosen for this honour, the Australian Open’s tournament director Craig Tiley replied “As part of the tradition, we have the former champions [for the draw ceremony]. We needed a former champion to come, she accepted the invite.”
Tiley was then asked whether it was appropriate for Sharapova’s first public appearance here since her doping offence to be couched in such celebratory terms.
“In fairness to Maria, the adjudication has occurred on that,” he said. “It's her 10-year anniversary” – Sharapova won her lone Australian Open title in 2008 – “like it's the 30-year anniversary of this great Melbourne Park. Maria is an Australian Open champion. She deserved the opportunity.”
Despite the absence of any current champions to choose from, there would have been a case for calling up a legend from the past – such as Evonne Goolagong Cawley – to accompany male defending champion Roger Federer.
Instead, the Australian Open has made tennis look soft on doping offenders. It is hard to imagine Wimbledon welcoming Sharapova back so enthusiastically, nor the French Open, which last year denied her a wild card on moral grounds.