MELBOURNE • An uncomfortable air hung over yesterday's Australian Open draw as Maria Sharapova, in the absence of defending champion Serena Williams, carried the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup into the draw ceremony on Margaret Court Arena.
The Russian, who faces 46th-ranked German Tatjana Maria in the first round, won the event in 2008. Her last Australian Open appearance was two years ago, losing to Williams in the quarter-finals and then serving 15 months for failing a drugs test.
Williams - who decided not to defend her title because of the birth of her daughter in September - would normally have had that honour. Organisers defended the decision, arguing that Sharapova was the only former champion who had been available. The only other former winner in this year's event is Angelique Kerber (2016), who is due to play today in the Sydney International semi-finals.
Tournament director Craig Tiley was uneasy when asked if he thought it was appropriate to honour a tarnished player, who is ranked 47th.
"In fairness to Maria," he said, "the adjudication has occurred on that. She's a former champion at the Australian Open, 10 years ago... Maria deserved the opportunity."
The player also had the easiest of rides in her on-court interview.
"After being away for such a long time, there are adjustments," she said. "They haven't come easily. I have to back off sometimes and say this will take time. I never contemplated retiring.
LET BYGONES BE BYGONES
In fairness to Maria, the adjudication has occurred on that (her doping offence). She's a former champion at the Australian Open 10 years ago... Maria deserved the opportunity.
CRAIG TILEY, Australian Open tournament director, defending Sharapova's invitation to the draw ceremony.
"But when I was a teenager, I never thought I'd play past 30.
"I thought I'd win a few tournaments and then have a family. And here I am in a sport that has given me so much, and I hope to have a family too."
Roger Federer is hoping to win his sixth title at Melbourne Park, but the path he will have to embark on next week to clinch his 20th Grand Slam crown is a rough one. He will have to defeat Juan Martin del Potro, Novak Djokovic or Alexander Zverev and Stan Wawrinka just to get to the final.
"It's great to be back. I don't normally like going to draws, as they freak me out. I only like to see the draw sheet and see who my first-round opponent is," said Federer, who will open his title defence against Slovenian Aljaz Bedene.
The 36-year-old, who also triumphed at Wimbledon last season, beat his long-time rival and friend Rafael Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 in last year's Melbourne final.
"It was an amazing final for me and an amazing moment in my life," added the world No. 2.
"I was thinking perhaps I might get to the quarter-finals, semi-finals at best, then run into a red-hot Djokovic, Nadal or (Andy) Murray and my game wouldn't be good enough for that day.
"But it was, ending with the epic match against Rafa. The fifth set was perhaps the best set I played. It was the highlight of my year, beating my Wimbledon win."
He also has Milos Raonic, David Goffin and Tomas Berdych in his quarter of the draw.
Top seed Nadal, paired with Dominican Victor Estrella Burgos in the first round, appears to have the easier section, although Marin Cilic may loom in the last eight.
Six-time champion Djokovic, seeded 14th after missing the back end of last season with an elbow injury, will start against American left-hander Donald Young.
Women's top seed Simona Halep faces Australian wildcard Destanee Aiava, with second seed Caroline Wozniacki starting out against Halep's fellow Romanian Mihaela Buzarnescu.
World No. 3 Garbine Muguruza is scheduled to meet France's Jessika Ponchet, although the Spaniard is a doubt owing to a thigh problem. Venus Williams, seeded fourth, was handed a tricky opener against Swiss former world No. 7 Belinda Bencic.
THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
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