LONDON: Maria Sharapova has been granted a wildcard for next month’s WTA grasscourt event in Birmingham, a key Wimbledon warm-up, organisers said Thursday.
It comes two days after the Russian former world number one was refused a wildcard for the French Open following her 15-month ban for doping.
Next month will see 2004 Wimbledon champion Sharapova, 30, play the Birmingham event for the first time in seven years.
She is guaranteed a spot in qualifying for Wimbledon but still hopes to get into the main draw for the Grand Slam with a wildcard.
Wimbledon chiefs will wait until June 20, just days ahead of the qualifying event, before deciding whether to give her a wildcard.
“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,” said Sharapova in a statement.
“I have some great memories of playing there over the years, including winning the title on two previous occasions.”
Lawn Tennis Association chief executive Michael Downey accepted “not everyone will agree” with the decision to give Sharapova a wildcard for Birmingham.
Some of her rivals on the women’s tour have openly questioned her return last month from a ban for taking meldonium.
“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,” said Downey, after the Russian confirmed she would play there in 2017 and 2018.
“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.”
The Birmingham event at the Edgbaston Priory club runs June 17-25, with eight of the world’s top 10 set to take part, including world number one Angelique Kerber. Wimbledon starts on July 3.
Sharapova returned from her doping ban on April 26 but relied on wildcards to get into tournaments because her world ranking points expired while she was banned.
She was initially banned for two years for using meldonium, with the penalty later reduced by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which ruled she was not an intentional doper.
After her ban expired, Sharapova returned to competition at the Stuttgart Open, reaching the semi-finals, and progressed to the last 32 of the Madrid Open, failing to earn a qualifying spot for the French Open, the second Grand Slam of the season, which starts later this month.
Sharapova this week responded to her French Open wildcard snub with a defiant Twitter message, saying: “If this is what it takes to rise up again, then I am in it all the way, everyday.”