Australian Open director defends Maria Sharapova decision: 'We wanted to have a former champion'

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley defended the decision to invite Maria Sharapova to the draw ceremony.

With defending champion Serena Williams missing the tournament, organisers controversially chose Sharapova to represent the women.

The Russian entered Margaret Court Arena carrying the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup at the same venue where she failed a doping test for meldonium two years ago.

But Tiley insisted there were no mixed messages, citing Sharapova's status as a former champion, with the Russian lifting the trophy 10 years ago.

In the absence of Williams and Victoria Azarenka, who is embroiled in an ongoing custody battle over baby son Leo, Sharapova and 2016 champion Angelique Kerber are the only former winners in the draw.

With Kerber still competing at the tournament in Sydney, Tiley was happy to call on 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 has climbed to 47th in the rankings as she continues to work her way back from her 15-month doping ban.

But the Russian remains unseeded and has her work cut out to progress far in the draw, with 14th seed Anastasija Sevastova, who beat Sharapova at the US Open, a potential second-round opponent and Kerber likely to be waiting in round three.

This is set to be another wide open tournament in the absence of Williams, and Sharapova revealed she still believes she can be world number one.

"That is the ultimate goal but I realise the depth of the game," she said. "It's for anyone to grab. I certainly will hope that I put myself in that position."

The stand-out first-round match on the women's side sees last year's runner-up Venus Williams meet former top-10 player Belinda Bencic.

Top seed Rafael Nadal plays Victor Estrella Burgos while defending champion Roger Federer meets Aljaz Bedene, who recently switched from representing Great Britain back to his native Slovenia.

Federer was back at the scene of his remarkable triumph 12 months ago and rated the deciding set he won to beat Nadal in the final as the best of his career.

He said: "It was an amazing final, an amazing moment for me in my life and it's great to be back here. I had all these great five-setters and at the end the epic match against Rafa. The fifth set was maybe the best set I ever played.

"It was a huge surprise. It was the highlight of last year, beating Wimbledon and all the other tournaments I played."

Six-time champion Novak Djokovic is only seeded 14th after his lengthy absence with elbow problems and was handed a tricky draw.

After American Donald Young in round one, he could face in-form Frenchman Gael Monfils in round two and fourth seed Alexander Zverev in round four, provided the young German gets past brother Mischa.

- PA and Digital desk

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