UK 'funds' basis of wild card

Commercial benefits cited as reason British peak body opened the door for Sharapova

LONDON • Britain's Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) insisted that Maria Sharapova has already "paid the price" for her failed drug test as the governing body used commercial reasons to justify its controversial decision to give the Russian a wild card for the Aegon Classic in Birmingham.

The LTA confirmed on Thursday that it has handed Sharapova a place in the main draw for the Wimbledon warm-up event at the Edgbaston Priory Club from June 19 to 25.

After returning three weeks ago from a 15-month doping suspension for taking the banned drug meldonium, Sharapova's world ranking of No. 211 was too low to gain entry by right.

In return for the LTA's generosity, Sharapova has committed to play at the tournament again next year. The five-time Grand Slam champion will, however, receive no appearance fee, even though that is common at other events for leading players.

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Michael Downey, the outgoing LTA chief executive, said: "Some may question the moral compass of this decision, we do not.

"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 wild card so our Birmingham event can benefit British fans who can take in her matches on home soil.

"And an important consequence of this decision will be the generation of more funds, which we will redeploy into our mission of getting more people to play tennis more often in 2017, again in 2018 and hopefully for many years to come."

The announcement came 46 hours after the French Open refused to award Sharapova a wild card to Roland Garros.

The LTA, though, has gone the way of WTA events in Stuttgart, Rome and Madrid in welcoming Sharapova in order to boost ticket sales and media interest.

On Thursday, Sharapova, who won the Birmingham event in 2004 and 2005, expressed her gratitude.

"I am 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," she said.

"I have some great memories of playing there, 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."

She said she would not request a wild card for Wimbledon - although the cashed-up Grand Slam tournament would not have had the same commercial reason as Birmingham to grant her one.

Elsewhere at the Italian Open quarter-finals yesterday, Romanian Simona Halep cruised to an easy 6-2, 6-4 win over Anett Kontaveit of Estonia in just 1hr 22min.

Kontaveit had defeated world No. 1 Angelique Kerber in an earlier round.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2017, with the headline 'UK 'funds' basis of wild card'. Print Edition | Subscribe