PARIS. — Rocked by Maria Sharapova’s failed drug test confession and the sun threatening to set on a golden generation, tennis faces huge challenges to maintain its impressive global profile. But despite Sharapova, the world’s highest earning sportswoman, confronting a potentially career-ending ban, industry insiders insist that the sport can ride out the storm.
“The Maria Sharapova doping story, whilst not ideal for the sport, is certainly not damaging enough to really affect tennis in the same way as we saw perhaps with cycling or sprinting,” Jon Stainer, managing director of sports sponsorship experts Repucom, said.
“In both those cases, doping was being carried out by a number of athletes for a sustained period.”
Sharapova has amassed a personal fortune of $200 million and according to the 2015 Forbes rich-list, the 28-year-old Russian earned almost $30 million last year, the bulk of which came from off-court endorsements. The five-time major champion earned more than great rival Serena Williams, the undisputed world number one and 21-time Grand Slam title winner, who banked almost $25 million.
As an indication of their significance to the sport, the two women also have huge social media profiles which dwarf their top 10 rivals. Williams has six million Twitter followers; world number seven Sharapova boasts more than two million.
But the five players between them in the rankings — Australian Open winner Angelique Kerber, Agnieszka Radwanska, Garbine Muguruza, Simona Halep and Carla Suarez Navarro — have under 600 000 between them.
The ruling WTA would be forgiven for hoping that the charismatic, photogenic, but unpredictable talents of Caroline Wozniacki and Eugenie Bouchard can soon make a Grand Slam breakthrough.
Sharapova, for her part, has not ruled out a return although her fate is in the hands of others.
“I am determined to play tennis again and I hope I will have the chance to do so. I wish I didn’t have to go through this, but I do — and I will,” she said.
Although Sharapova has seen her money-spinning relationships with Nike and Porsche suspended, her racquet manufacturer Head has stayed loyal. Even on the sidelines she remains a formidable business prospect.
“Beauty sells,” she once famously said and business experts tend to agree.
“Sharapova is the most marketable female athlete in the world, ranking above the likes of Serena Williams and (Alpine skier) Lindsey Vonn,” added Stainer.
Meanwhile, there is a question mark over the staying power of Williams, who will be 35 in September and remains frustratingly one major title short of equalling Steffi Graf’s Open era record of 22.
But she’s not the only one fighting time.
Roger Federer, the record 17-time Grand Slam champion, will turn 35 in August and has been without a major since Wimbledon in 2012.
The Swiss was tennis’s top earner in 2015 — and fifth on Forbes’ all sports list — with $67 million. Current world number one, Novak Djokovic, six years Federer’s junior, raked in $48 million.
Their long-time rival Rafael Nadal, the winner of 14 majors, will be 30 in June and last year, for the first time since 2004, he failed to win at least one major in a season.
But Nadal still made $32,5 million. — AFP.