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Sharapova is thrilled to get a wildcard for Birmingham

By Tom Allnutt

The Lawn Tennis Association have confirmed they have accepted a request from Maria Sharapova to play at the Aegon Classic in Birmingham next month.

Five-time Grand Slam champion Sharapova has been given a wildcard by the LTA to enter the tournament and will also play the grass-court event in 2018 after agreeing a two-year deal.

Sharapova 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.

“I have some great memories of playing there over the years, including winning the title on two previous occasions.

“I am looking forward to seeing all the recent improvements the tournament has made to establish itself as one of the best grass-court events in the world.”

Sharapova was refused automatic entry to the French Open on Tuesday, with her ranking still too low to qualify by right. She returned from a 15-month ban in April after testing positive for meldonium.

The LTA’s call to grant the World No.211 a free pass for the Aegon Classic, which runs from June 19-25, is likely to draw criticism from those that believe players suspended for doping should not be given privileges.

Andy Murray has been clear in his view that returning offenders should have to work their way back up and the same opinion has been expressed by a number of players on the WTA Tour.

LTA chief executive Michael Downey, who is to step down this summer, said: “We have received a two-year commitment from one of the most famous athletes in the world, Maria Sharapova, to play the Aegon Classic Birmingham.

“In return we are providing Maria with a main draw wildcard for this year. This wasn’t a decision we took lightly and we recognise not everyone will agree with it, however Maria has served her ban in full and is now back playing high-quality tennis.

“There’s always a lot of debate about who we give wildcards to. Now that Maria has earned direct entry into Wimbledon qualifying, we want to give British tennis fans the chance to see her compete here beforehand.”

The decision will place added scrutiny on Wimbledon’s decision whether to offer Sharapova a wildcard into their main draw this summer.

Sharapova has accumulated enough points already to enter Wimbledon qualifying but an All England Club sub-committee will meet on June 20 to decide which players will be fast-tracked into the first round proper.

Sharapova retired injured from her match against Mirjana Lucic-Baroni at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome on Tuesday after beating American Christina McHale to reach the second round.

The event was her third since coming back from suspension after she previously made the semi-finals in Stuttgart and the last 32 in Madrid.

The Russian has also been offered a wildcard at the WTA Ricoh Open in Holland next month, continuing a trend of smaller tournaments welcoming Sharapova back, perhaps with commercial incentives in mind.

Johanna Konta, meanwhile, crashed out of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome at the third-round stage after a three-set defeat to Venus Williams.

The British No.1 was facing the American for the first time since March, when victory sent her into the Miami final.

But it was a different story on the Italian clay as Williams produced two emphatic sets to triumph 6-1 3-6 6-1.

Fifth seed Konta had shown no ill effects from her first-round exit in Madrid last week with an easy second-round win over Yulia Putintseva. But she was no match for Williams in a powerful first set in which the 36-year-old broke twice while saving the solitary break point on her serve.

Konta recovered well with a much more solid second set but Williams upped her game again in the third, seizing her only two break-point chances to wrap up a convincing win.

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