Sharapova’s Return to Grand Slam Final at Wimbledon Boosts Women’s Tennis

Maria Sharapova is back in a Grand Slam tennis final for the first time since 2008, and the women’s game is better off for it.

The former top-ranked player beat German wild-card Sabine Lisicki, 6-4, 6-3 yesterday to advance to her second Wimbledon final. The 2004 champion will play for the title tomorrow against the Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova, who defeated Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, 6-1, 3-6, 6-2.

“I’m thrilled to be in the final,” Sharapova said in a news conference. “I was pretty realistic. I hadn’t been past the fourth round in a few years. So to be at this stage, I’m just thrilled to have the opportunity to go for it.”

After winning the 2008 Australian Open, a shoulder injury forced the Russian off the women’s WTA tour for nine months, beginning in August. Although she came back two years ago, Sharapova hadn’t reached a major semifinal until the French Open this month.

“Women’s tennis, like a lot of individual sports, is in large part driven by having star personalities,” Jim Andrews, vice president of Chicago-based IEG Sponsorship Report, said in a telephone interview. “You’ve got to have at least a few marquee names that people are going to be interested in, especially for the casual fans.”

Today’s Play

Second-seed Novak Djokovic of Serbia plays France’s Jo- Wilfried Tsonga in today’s first men’s semifinal on Centre Court. That match is followed by defending champion Rafael Nadal of Spain against Andy Murray of Britain.

Nadal is a 1-2 favorite to beat Murray with U.K. bookmaker William Hill Plc. That means a successful $2 bet would return $1 and the original wager. Murray is 7-4 odds to reach the final. Djokovic is 1-2 to defeat Tsonga, who is 7-4 to get through.

Sharapova ranks 776th on a list of more than 2,800 people in terms of endorsement appeal, according to Chris Anderson of The Marketing Arm, which compiles the Davie Brown Index that measures celebrity status in the U.S. She’s on par with Oscar- winning actress Susan Sarandon, National Football League quarterback Donovan McNabb and singer Kelly Clarkson.

Sharapova, 24, became a global superstar after winning Wimbledon at 17. With a game built on ground strokes and mental toughness, she has become the world’s best-paid female athlete.

Endorsements, Winnings

The Russian, who also won the 2006 U.S. Open, earns $24 million in prize money and from endorsing companies including Tiffany & Co., Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications Ltd. and Groupe Danone SA’s Evian water, according to Forbes magazine. Her $15 million in career prize money alone is one-third higher than that of the three other women semifinalists combined.

The sixth-ranked Sharapova will climb to No. 3 if she wins Wimbledon.

Winning a second title at her favorite Grand Slam tournament has been her goal since her comeback, Sharapova said in an interview in Rome last month.

“I’d win Wimbledon again, absolutely,” she said at the Foro Italico, when asked if she preferred a French Open or Wimbledon championship. A French Open title would have completed a career Grand Slam sweep.

“I was a junior and that was the first time I really fell in love with it,” Sharapova said of her introduction to Wimbledon. “It’s just that feeling that I have, it’s a feeling when I go on the court there. Winning it obviously helps and I’d love to repeat that. Nothing, obviously, will take your name away from that trophy but I want to add it on there again.”

Rivalries

Women’s tennis has been lacking strong rivalries and a dominant leader since Sharapova temporarily left the tour in 2008. Just like the current No. 1-ranked player, Caroline Wozniacki from Denmark, Jelena Jankovic of Serbia and Dinara Safina of Russia have held the top spot without winning a major title.

Seven-time Grand Slam champion Justine Henin, who was No. 1 for 117 weeks before she temporarily quit in 2007, retired for good after this year’s Australian Open with an elbow injury. Kim Clijsters, the reigning U.S. Open and Australian Open champion from Belgium, missed Wimbledon with an injury, while sisters Serena and Venus Williams, who have won 20 major singles titles between them, don’t play a full schedule.

Serena’s title defense at Wimbledon was ended in the fourth round by France’s Marion Bartoli. The American had been ranked No. 1 after she won her 13th Grand Slam singles at Wimbledon last year, before a foot injury and treatment for blood clots in her lungs forced her off the tour for almost a year.

‘Most Open’

“For the last few years this has probably been the most open that women’s tennis has ever been,” Brad Gilbert, the former coach of Wimbledon champion Andre Agassi, said in a conference call organized by broadcaster ESPN before Wimbledon. There are now “15, 20 women that can win majors,” he added.

“Sharapova is the one that TV executives are going to want in the finals, they are going to need her to draw ratings,” Jim Courier, an American formerly ranked No. 1 in the world, said in a conference call this week. No one in the U.S. “is going to pay much attention unless Maria is in the finals.”

Sharapova parted ways at the start of the season with long- time coach Michael Joyce and is working with Thomas Hogstedt, a former Swedish pro who had been with French Open champion Li Na of China.

“Thomas is excellent, and what he brought to the team is a little more flamboyancy, get a little more aggressive,” Nick Bollettieri, Sharapova’s former coach, said in an interview.

Habits

Sharapova started her semifinal day as usual this year at Wimbledon, on Court 16 of the practice section with Hogstedt feeding her balls as she served at hitting partner and former Wimbledon semifinalist Vladimir Voltchkov. Sasha Vujacic, Sharapova’s fiancé and a National Basketball Association player, quietly watched from the corner of the court.

Sharapova has struggled at times with her serve since her shoulder surgery. Against Lisicki, she hit 13 double faults and two aces, compared with four double faults and no aces for her German opponent.

Sharapova’s serve will be a key in the finals.

“Maria has got to stay close to the baseline, get a good solid first serve in and win the rally in the first three shots,” Bollettieri said. “If it goes six, seven or eight shots, Maria becomes less of a weapon.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Danielle Rossingh at Wimbledon through the London sports desk at drossingh@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Elser at celser@bloomberg.net

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