London, May 19 (IANS) Five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova has been named as the first of seven main draw singles wild cards for this summer’s British WTA grass court events organised by the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), organisers said.

The former world No.1 will play the Aegon Classic Birmingham for the first time in seven years, and has committed to playing both the 2017 and 2018 events, reports Xinhua news agency.

Speaking about the announcement on Thursday, LTA Chief Executive Michael Downey 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 wild card 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 wild cards 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.”

“She will face a star-studded lineup that includes eight of the world’s top 10, headlined by British No.1 Johanna Konta and world No.1 Angelique Kerber. The WTA tournament in Birmingham promises to give British tennis fans an exciting, pre-Wimbledon grass court competition on their doorstep,” he added.

Sharapova commented: “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,” she added.

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