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Love her or hate her, but Sharapova remains a major draw especially in Birmingham event

Maria Sharapova

Is it a deal made in heaven?

When Maria Sharapova inked a contract with the Lawn Tennis Association to see action in Birmingham’s Aegon Classic, not a few eyebrows were raised.

As a former No. 1 besieged by her drug use and controversial return to the sport, many still see the Russian star as a major attraction to hype the sport even as protests keep plaguing her return.

The 30-year-old Sharapova signed a contract with the LTA over two years to play in the tournament.

A five-time Grand Slam champion, she got a wildcard for the June event after falling down the rankings following a 15-month drug suspension.

Under the agreement, Sharapova will not get an appearance fee from the LTA.

Knowing the controversy surrounding it, LTA head Michael Downey admitted the decision was not taken lightly and “not everyone will agree with it.’’

Count Andy Murray and other players in among those in disagreement over it, and generally on the return of the Russian netter.

Murray and Co. reiterated on Thursday that players coming back from drugs suspension should not be given wildcards to tournaments.

Canadian player Eugenie Bouchard had earlier lambasted Sharapova, branding the latter a “cheater.’’

Sharapova got the axe after testing positive for heart disease drug meldonium during the 2016 Australian Open.

She got a backer though in the Court of Arbitration for Sport which said she was not an “intentional doper”.

Downey defended LTA’s move and explained it in a letter to their staff and other senior officials in British tennis.

“Some may question the moral compass of this decision. We do not,’’ Downey said.

He added that although Sharapova made a mistake that they do not condone, “she has paid the price through her 15-month ban and now can return to action.’’

The presence of Sharapova in the Birmingham is good business from a commercial point of view as we see it and although there are those frowning on it, they are perhaps outnumbered by those who hailed the LTA decision.

Sharapova ruled the Birmingham event in 2004 and 2005 and has enjoyed backing from the crowd.

As the LTA see it, her re-appearance in the tournament will benefit British fans who can see her in action on home soil.

Sharapova, currently 211th in the world rankings, was elated upon learning of LTA’s decision.

“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,’’ she said.

Others expected to compete in the Birmingham netfest are world No. 1 Angelique Kerber, British No. 1 Johanna Konta, Garbine Muguruza, Agnieszka Radwanska and Simona Halep.

Forget about Maria’s haters because in Birmingham, she definitely has plenty of adoring fans.

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