Maria Sharapova signs two-year Birmingham deal

Maria Sharapova
Maria Sharapova is 211th in the world rankings

Former world number one Maria Sharapova has signed a deal with the Lawn Tennis Association to play at Birmingham's Aegon Classic for the next two years.

The five-time Grand Slam winner, 30, has been given a wildcard for the event in June having fallen down the world rankings after a 15-month drugs ban.

The LTA will not pay the Russian an appearance fee.

"This wasn't a decision we took lightly and not everyone will agree with it," said LTA chief Michael Downey.

Sharapova was banned after testing positive for heart disease drug meldonium at the 2016 Australian Open, though the Court of Arbitration for Sport found she was not an "intentional doper".

Men's world number one Andy Murray and several female players have said those returning from drugs bans should not be given wildcard entries to tournaments.

In a letter to LTA staff and other senior figures in British tennis, Downey was more explicit in his reasoning as to why Sharapova was given a wildcard.

"Some may question the moral compass of this decision. We do not," he added.

"She made a mistake that we do not condone. She has paid the price through her 15-month ban and now can return to action.

"We did not take this decision lightly, but - like all other WTA events before ours - have granted her a wildcard so our Birmingham event can benefit British fans who can take in her matches on home soil."

Sharapova, who won the title in Birmingham in 2004 and 2005, said: "I am really excited to be coming back to Birmingham this year to play on the grass as part of my build-up to Wimbledon and I thank the LTA for this opportunity."

British number one Johanna Konta, world number one Angelique Kerber, Garbine Muguruza, Agnieszka Radwanska and Simona Halep will also be competing in Birmingham.

'A Briton might miss out because of Sharapova wildcard' - analysis

BBC tennis correspondent Russell Fuller

From a commercial point of view, this is good business. Sharapova has also signed up for next year without the LTA having to pay appearance fees - which are regularly offered to attract the big names to non-mandatory events.

Sharapova's signature is seen as a major coup within the LTA. Some staff are unhappy with the decision, but there has also been plenty of back slapping in celebration.

It is a hard-nosed business decision to try and boost ticket sales at an event which suffers through competition with the ATP event at the Queen's Club in the same week.

Downey says he "does not question the moral compass of the decision", but the LTA is the sport's governing body in the UK. Contrast this call with the one made on Tuesday by the French federation, which decided it would be inappropriate to invite Sharapova to Roland Garros as it would undermine their anti-doping message.

And by offering a wildcard to Sharapova, someone else - quite possibly a British player - will be denied an opportunity.

Naomi Broady may have been that beneficiary. She would be the first to admit she is not as big a draw as Sharapova, but has been in the top 100 for much of the past 12 months.

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