Maria Sharapova on Thursday "took center stage" alongside Roger Federer at the Australian Open draw ceremony, a move that "surprised some" after she missed last year's tournament as part of her doping ban, according to Courtney Walsh of THE AUSTRALIAN. The ceremonial role is "usually carried out by the defending champion but Serena Williams remains sidelined as she recovers from giving birth." Tournament Dir Craig Tiley "defended the decision to invite" Sharapova to play a key role at the function, saying the tournament "wanted to have a former champion." Tiley: "In fairness to Maria, the adjudication has occurred on that. She deserved the opportunity.” Angelique Kerber, the '16 champion, is the "only other woman playing this year to have won" the tournament (THE AUSTRALIAN, 1/12). The London Times' Stuart Fraser tweeted, "To hell, apparently, with a message of deterrence for any player tempted to indulge in banned substances. ... Not a good look for the sport."N.Y. Times' Ben Rothenberg: "Sharapova often got a raw deal in her anti-doping hearings...but I still cannot believe #AusOpen had her carry the trophy onto court."However, beIN Sports' Tancredi Palmeri wrote, "Nonsense quarrel over Sharapova being testimonial for Australian Open draw. She doped, she was banned, she paid for it, over. You don’t see media doing any of that noise about Maradona" (TWITTER.com, 1/11).
BATTLE OF ATTRITION: In London, Vicki Hodges writes the lead up to this year's Australian Open, which begins Sunday night in the U.S., has "so far been dominated by injury doubts, player withdrawals and off-field issues." Organizers have been "sweating over which marquee players will actually turn up and be fit enough to see out the fortnight." Andy Murray "reluctantly made the call to pull out of his second successive grand slam with a long-standing hip injury," while Kei Nishikori, who has been sidelined with a wrist injury since last August, "needs more time to continue his rehab." In addition to Williams' absence, Victoria Azarenka will miss her "second straight slam due to an ongoing legal battle surrounding the custody of her son" (London TELEGRAPH, 1/10). Rafael Nadal's readiness had "been in doubt" after he "pulled out of an exhibition in Abu Dhabi and a tournament in Brisbane to start the season, citing his lack of preparation following an injury layoff" at the end of '17. But Nadal said that he "still believes he'll be ready to compete" next week (AP, 1/9).
Serena Williams has committed to play at Tie Break Tens, a "one-day tiebreaker event at Madison Square Garden” in March, despite her current hiatus from the WTA Tour, according to David Waldstein of the N.Y. TIMES. Tie Break Tens CEO Felicity Barnard said that both Serena and Venus Williams “confirmed several months ago that they would attend the event.” Tie Break Tens, which “borrows from the faster-paced concepts being used in sports like Twenty20 cricket and Rugby Sevens, pits eight players in a knockout format.” The contestants “play a 10-point tiebreaker, and the winner advances to the next round.” The event “takes roughly three hours, and the champion gets all $250,000.” Organizers said that they will “promote the New York event in conjunction” with Int’l Women’s Day on March 8. There have been "four previous Tie Break Tens events,” including one earlier this week in Melbourne in advance of the Australian Open (N.Y. TIMES, 1/12).
The NFL has staged 51 Super Bowls, and until this year, the host team never had a home game even in the divisional round of the playoffs. That changes Sunday when the Vikings face the Saints at U.S. Bank Stadium. A Vikings win and an Eagles loss to the Falcons would put the NFC Championship game in Minneapolis as well. While the host team’s success is an added local story, it is not all feel-good for the league’s event planners, who in past years enjoyed largely unfettered access to the Super Bowl venue. That has not been the case this year and it has complicated the setup for Super Bowl LII. NFL Senior VP/Events Peter O’Reilly recently talked to SBJ/SBD to see how the Vikings’ success has affected planning.
O’REILLY: It impacts it a fair amount; we have been in conversations with the Vikings for a while now about those different scenarios. Obviously there has never even been a divisional game in the home city stadium. SBJ/SBD: That’s crazy.
O’REILLY: It’s unbelievable, but that in and of itself pushes back some of our timelines. A championship game would do that as well. So, we have had people on the ground out there since just after the start of the new year, but certain projects we would need to do in the building, as you have seen over the years -- whether it is building out different booths for international media or auxiliary press or getting all decor in place. It would certainly compact the timeline to do that. ... It would be certainly a much tighter window to get a lot of that done. Overall, we feel good. Obviously if [the Vikings making the NFC Championship game] were to happen, it would be historic and create incredible excitement out there. But operationally it definitely changes things for when we start to do things in the stadium so as to not impact or change the fan experience for a typical Vikings game.
SBJ/SBD: Can you do work in the stadium while the Vikings are still an active home team?
O’REILLY: We are. ... For example, for the halftime show, we will do a fair amount of the rigging, which will end up being in the ceiling, the rafters of the building. You get a lot of those elements in place. And even for [Sunday’s] divisional game you will see outside of the stadium in a number of the lots we have compounds set up, and we have been working through that with the Vikings. It is really the things that would impact any seating in there. A good example would be the auxiliary press where we are putting table tops over seats and creating those areas for media beyond the press box. Obviously, that can’t be built out. ... And as I mentioned, a number of those booths where the international broadcast would come in and broadcast for that would need to be done afterwards. You get as much as you can have done that doesn’t impact because at the end of the day we have to make sure that the Vikings’ experience is strong. But they have been tremendous partners throughout. So, it will be interesting.