The Lawn Tennis Association has confirmed it has 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.”
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 a positive drug test.
The LTA’s call to grant the world No 211 a free pass for the Aegon Classic, which runs from 19-25 June, is likely to draw criticism from those that believe players suspended for doping should not be given special 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 on grass here in Britain 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 20 June to decide which players will be fast-tracked into the first round proper.
Wimbledon donates a large share of its profits to the LTA but the grand slam oversees its own tournament independently of the governing body.
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 Russian has also been offered a wildcard to play at the WTA Ricoh Open in Holland next month, continuing a trend of smaller tournaments welcoming Sharapova back, perhaps with commercial incentives in mind.
Meanwhile, Johanna Konta crashed out at the third-round stage in Rome after a three-set defeat to Venus Williams. The British No 1, pictured, was facing the American veteran for the first time since March, when victory sent her into the final in Miami.
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.
Before yesterday’s match, Konta had got the better of Williams in three straight matches: at the Australian Open, Bank of the West Classic, and in Miami. But she was no match for the American in a powerful first set in which the 36-year-old broke twice whilst saving the solitary break point on her own serve.
The second set came down to a titanic eighth game, where Konta converted her fifth break point of the set to take the initiative and level the match. But Williams upped her game again in the third, seizing her only two break-point chances.