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AUSTRALIAN Open tournament director Craig Tiley was forced today to defend the decision to invite Maria Sharapova to the draw ceremony.
Due to the absence of world defending champion Serena Williams, the organisers of the tournament decided to choose Sharapova instead to represent the women.
The Russian carried the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup into the Margaret Court Arena, the same venue where she failed a doping test for meldonium two years ago.
Two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azakrenka has withdrawn from the tournament because of an ongoing custody battle over her baby son Leo, leaving Sharapova and 2016 champion Angelique Kerber as the only available candidates to carry the trophy.
However, Kerber is still competing in the Sydney International, which left Tiley no choice but to pick Sharapova.
“We wanted to have a former champion,” he said. “We were happy she accepted our invite. The adjudication has occurred on that [the drugs ban]. Maria deserved the opportunity.”
Sharapova is currently ranked 47th in the world as she continues to work her way back from her 15-month doping ban.
As an unseeded player, she’ll have a lot of work to do to get through the early rounds of the tournament, as 14th seed Anastasija Sevastova, a familiar opponent to Sharapova whom she lost to, could be a potential second-round opponent. Kerber is likely to be her next one in round three.
The tournament is set to be wide open once again as Williams is ruled out, which leaves Sharapova feeling hopeful of becoming world No 1.
“That is the ultimate goal, but I realise the depth of the game. It’s for anyone to grab. I certainly will hope that I put myself in that position.”
Ninth seed Joanna Konta will be Britain’s best hope of winning this year with Andy Murray unavailable. She will play Madison Brengle of the United States.
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