Sharapova handed Aegon Classic wildcard

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The former world number one returned in April from a 15-month doping ban having been granted entry to tournaments in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome.

However, she was snubbed by the French Tennis Federation, which stated: "There cannot be a wildcard for return from doping".

Sharapova, a two-time Roland Garros champion, is set to compete in Wimbledon qualifying – and may yet be given a wildcard for the main draw – after rising up the rankings and the Birmingham tournament will afford the 30 year-old an opportunity to hone her grass-court game.

Having also committed to playing in the 2018 event, Sharapova's inclusion by the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) was explained by its chief executive Michael Downey.

"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," he said.  

"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 on grass here in Britain beforehand."

Sharapova, who has won five grand slams, added: "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."

The draw in Birmingham will feature eight of the world's top 10 players. Madison Keys took the title last year, while Sharapova's two triumphs came in 2004 and 2005.