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The New Golden Girl of Tennis

By David Kiley Maria Sharapova is without a doubt the toast of the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament. And that's just from the perspective of her marketing game. If she actually wins the tournament, or even comes close to making it into the finals, that will be OK, too.

Sharapova, the 17 year-old Russian-born player who upset Serena Williams to win Wimbledon last July, just inked a three-year $5 million endorsement deal with Motorola (MOT), adding to smaller deals with Prince, Nike (NKE) and Speedminton (a strange product combining tennis, badminton and racquetball). She is also a client of the modeling arm of IMG, which manages the budding star. At 6 feet, blonde, and with magazine-cover looks, Sharapova has apparel, retail, auto, and consumer-electronics companies all jockeying to sign her up after the Open, whether or not she wins.

DREAM PACKAGE. The pact with Motorola, which is considered a good-sized deal for a young player, grew out of a failed attempt to call her mother from courtside after beating Williams in July, giving the deal a homey human-interest angle for business and tennis writers. Though Sharapova's handlers are trying to protect the young star from being overexposed too soon (think Jennifer Capriati) look for her to have at least two more seven-figure endorsement deals by yearend.

"Sharapova is a packager's dream," says marketing consultant Dennis Keene. "She has great looks and is a fierce competitor. Unless her game unravels completely, she will clean up in the next few years, as long as she stays in the top five or so."

More than 40 cameras are following Sharapova' s every move this week in Flushing Queens, and it's not just because she won Wimbledon. The young phenom's looks are as important as her game. A USA Today story about the Wimbledon champ described her as a "leggy, flaxen-haired prodigy." One sports writer called her "Kournikova, but with a game." That's a reference to the fact that Anna Kournikova, another gorgeous Russian tennis player, who was racking up more than $10 million per year in endorsements in 2002 and 2003, even though her form on the court was barely competitive. Today, her tennis career is on hold as she pursues modeling and acting gigs. Kournikova was the acknowledged "hottie" of women's tennis, until now.

FALTERING FORM. Tennis stars, especially attractive ones, are sought after by marketers because tennis appeals to affluent consumers, as well as a strong mix of men and women. By contrast, football, baseball, and hockey attract mainly males.

Since her big win at Wimbledon, Sharapova has dropped out of one tennis tournament because of a busy schedule, and she lost three others without putting up much a fight. To her credit, she also refused several high-profile media opportunities that might have further distracted her from tennis. Still, she came close to losing her first-round match this week. Even if the world's No. 7 player doesn't make the quarter finals, marketers will make sure she goes home a winner. Kiley is Marketing editor for BusinessWeek in New York

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