Channel 7 has joined the Australian Open in becoming an international laughing stock over the decision to award returning star Maria Sharapova the honour of conducting the women's draw for the 2018 Australian Open.
Open tournament director Craig Tiley has had to defend the decision to welcome the 30-year-old Russian back with overt flattery — less than two years since she tested positive top a banned substance at Melbourne Park in 2016.
The Australian Open has a long tradition of giving former champions the honour of conducting the Open draw. Men's 2017 champion Roger Federer was also at Margaret Court Arena to conduct the men's draw.
Tiley said Sharapova was the only former champion available to conduct the women's draw.
However, the sight of Sharapova walking out onto the arena floor carrying the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup has not sat well with tennis commentators.
"We wanted to have a former champion," Tiley said.
"The challenge we always have this week is there is the (concurrent) Sydney event, the Hobart event and there are also other events. As part of the tradition, we have the former champions.
"In fairness to Maria, the adjudication (on a 15-month ban) has occurred on that. She's a former champion at the Australian Open, 10 years ago.
"Like it's the 30-year anniversary of this great Melbourne Park, and Billie Jean King arrived this morning. It is [50 years] since she won. Maria deserved the opportunity."
With Serena Williams already unavailable for the tournament, Victoria Azarenka unable to leave the United States following the birth of her child and German Angelique Kerber still competing at the Sydney International, Tiley said Sharapova was the only option.
Very few tennis commentators appeared to agree.
The uncomfortable red carpet treatment dished out to Sharapova was compounded by her live interview with Channel 7's Hamish McLachlan where her awkward return to Melbourne Park after serving a 15-month drugs ban for testing positive to banned substance meldonium was tiptoed around like it never happened.
McLachlan has been heavily criticised for labelling Sharapova's drugs suspension a "time out".
"What benefited you the most during your time out, the mind or the body" he asked Sharapova.
"Did you have a break given that you hadn't really put a racquet down for 20 years?"
She responded by also neglecting to mention her drugs suspension, referring to her time away from tennis as a "period of time".
"I took a couple of months off of not training and not playing, which for me was just so unreal because since the age of four that's really all I did," she told McLachlan.
"I think the maximum of time that I would take off, apart from having shoulder surgery a few years back, was maybe just a couple of weeks at a time.
"So maybe, having that period of time, just for my mind, I was able to do other things in my life and study. I was able to do some internships and what may people would say was a normal life, which I've never actually gotten to experience so to have that — even though it wasn't in the way that I wanted it to — it did bring a lot of normalcy into my life and to be able to share things and holidays and to actually be there with my friends and family.
"Those are things I miss when I'm on the tour for 10 months out of the year."
The interview was panned by tennis commentators, who felt uneasy about the red carpet treatment Sharapova received in her first public appearance back at Melbourne Park since her drugs bombshell.
The Times' Stuart Fraser labelled the entire production a "farce".
"The ceremony descended further into farce when the Channel 7 interviewer Hamish McLachlan did not mention Sharapova's drugs ban once during a lengthy on-court interview," Fraser wrote.
"Her "time out" from the sport was referred to as though it was a break of her choosing. It is another shameful episode in which tennis has rolled out the red carpet for a doping offender.
"To hell, apparently, with a message of deterrence for any player tempted to indulge in banned substances."
The Telegraph labelled McLachlan "obsequious" for his cheap selection of questions.
"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," The Telegraph's Simon Briggs wrote.
"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.
The Daily Mail's Mike Dickson said the decision to honour Sharapova had the same low-rent class Australia served up by giving England's cricketers a "four-fingered salute" during the Ashes victory presentation ceremony at the SCG.
"It was a strangely tin-eared call for such an expertly-run tournament, and Tournament Director Craig Tiley was forced to defend the invitation later.
"It is true that Sharapova has a rare pulling power — especially when Serena Williams is indisposed — but small wonder that the outside world looks in and questions whether tennis takes anti-doping seriously enough.
"Wheeling her out had all the graciousness of Monday's final Ashes presentation in Sydney, which featured those giant, nationally-coloured hands with erect fingers reminding everyone of the 4-0 scoreline."
The Express wrote tennis commentators were in "disbelief" at the decision to honour Sharapova.
"Maria Sharapova carried the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup into the Australian Open draw ceremony, much to the disbelief of those watching.
"The Russian's last involvement with the tournament in 2016 resulted in her being banned from tennis for 15 months after testing positive for a prohibited substance.
"Many felt it was not right for the 30-year-old to feature at the showpiece event."
Tennis commentators on social media were just as incredulous at the strange decision.