LTA plan to merge events for south coast showpiece
Maria Sharapova and Andy Murray could play at the same pre-Wimbledon grasscourt tournament in Eastbourne — if the Lawn Tennis Association successfully conclude negotiations to reshape the British tennis summer.
From next summer, the LTA would like to combine the existing women's tournament in Eastbourne with the men's event in Nottingham to provide a showpiece competition on the south coast in the week before Wimbledon begins.
Historically, the Eastbourne tournament has attracted stars like Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Jana Novotna, Amelie Mauresmo and Justine Henin, and for most of the past 25 years it has been broadcast on television.
Usually, the field has at least five of the world's top 10 women.
In contrast, Nottingham, a low-tier event on the ATP calendar, relies heavily on boosting box office appeal from 'wildcard' invitations to top players who have lost in an early round the previous week at Queen's Club.
Last summer Lleyton Hewitt and Tim Henman signed up to play in Nottingham only after being beaten in London.
It is understood the LTA explored the possibility of having women players join men at Queen's Club next summer after the Artois beer company announced that its 30-year sponsorship would end in June.
But this was ruled out due to the size of the venue and the difficulty of organising a date with the ATP and WTA, the governing bodies for men's and women's tennis.
Instead, the LTA have proposed this new event with Devonshire Park, near the sea front, the preferred location. The plan would be to have a 32-draw for men and women.
The LTA are seeking one major sponsor for the grass court season but neither Eastbourne nor Nottingham have a sponsor for this year.
Sharapova, who won Wimbledon in 2004, has yet to appear at Eastbourne but has told LTA organisers that she has not ruled out the possibility of playing on the south coast.
Murray is always likely to target Queen's Club as his first-choice preparatory tournament for Wimbledon.
Yet, if he was to be an early casualty in London, or had to miss the event through injury, it is feasible that the 21-year-old British No 1 could turn to Eastbourne.
An ATP spokesman said: "The blueprint build for the tour, for the fans, is to have top players, men and women, at top events so this proposal (of combining Nottingham and Eastbourne) fits our strategy."