Open savaged over doper’s ‘star billing’
Tennis Australia has faced down international criticism for giving doping violator Maria Sharapova star billing to promote next week’s Australian Open. The row embroiled host broadcaster the Seven Network after it was savaged on social media and in media commentary over an interview with the former world No 1 that glossed over her drug ban.
Sharapova was wheeled in to parade the women’s trophy on Margaret Court Arena at Thursday’s televised draw for the tournament, replacing defending champion Serena Williams, who had pulled out.
The plaudits that Tennis Australia receives for running what is regarded as the world’s bestorganised grand slam gave way to sniping at an “astonishing lack of judgment” to elevate Sharapova so soon after her 2016 doping infraction at the Open.
“It reinforced the belief that this is a sport that, time and time again, is weak when it comes to dealing with those who fall foul of anti-doping laws,” wrote Stuart Fraser of The Times, echoed by a chorus of Fleet Street criticism.
The Daily Mail said Sharapova’s elevation by Tennis Australia was a “strangely tin-eared call for such an expertly-run tournament” while The Guardian heaped scorn on Seven’s Hamish McLachlan after he referred to her drug suspension as “time out” from the game.
Fraser wrote: “It made one ponder how Williams felt, if she was watching from home, to be watching Sharapova walk out with a smile on her face, carrying the trophy that the American, while eight weeks pregnant, battled so hard to win last year.”
Australian Olympic swimmer Mack Horton, who has been outspoken against doping in swimming, was critical. “I don’t think how she has been represented here reflects how the majority of Australians feel about her ‘time out’,” he said.
However, the tennis great after whom Melbourne’s tennis arena is named, Margaret Court, said the doping finding against Sharapova was unfair and she was glad to see the Russian back.
American great Billie-Jean King also backed Tennis Australia over Sharapova: “She served her time. I don’t understand why people can’t get over it.”
Defending the decision, tournament director Craig Tiley said Sharapova’s appearance alongside five-time men’s champion Roger Federer was justified as it was the 10th anniversary of her 2008 victory. “We needed a former champion to come. She accepted the invite,” he said.
The only other former Australian Open women’s winner in the draw, 2016 titleholder Angelique Kerber of Germany, was noncommittal when asked yesterday about the Russian’s return. “Yeah, she’s back and she played not bad in the last few weeks,” she said.
Federal Sport Minister Bridget McKenzie said it was up to Tennis Australia to decide who participated in media events, but “the Australian public takes a hard stand when it comes to antidoping”.
The former world No 1 insists testing positive to meldonium at the Open two years ago was an honest mistake, as she had been taking it as medication for 10 years before it was reclassified as a banned substance.
Maria Sharapova’s controversial appearance at the draw