Serena Williams is back at the U.S. Open for the first time since a match-ending foot fault two years ago, with changes in her public image and her competition at the season’s final Grand Slam tennis tournament.
Williams’s appeal, as measured by the Davie Brown Index marketing survey, fell to a career low after she threatened a lineswoman for calling that foot fault in 2009, leading to a $175,000 fine.
It’s up again as she comes back from two foot operations and a blood clot in her lungs that she said put her “literally on my deathbed.” The world’s former top player dropped to No. 175 on the WTA tour and needed a special injury ranking to qualify for the tournament, which begins today in New York.
“At times in her career, she’s been almost unbeatable,” Darin David, an account director at Omnicom Group’s The Marketing Arm, said in a telephone interview. “Seeing her fight through some adversity has made her more endearing to people.”
Williams, 29, will be seeking her 14th Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open, which runs through Sept. 11 at the National Tennis Center. Only one other current women’s player -- her sister Venus, with seven -- has more than four major titles. Venus plays her first-round match today, while Serena will likely begin play tomorrow.
Williams was seeded second in 2009. Two injury-marred years have left her 28th this time.
One thing hasn’t changed -- she is the betting favorite heading into the tournament. Las Vegas Sports Consultants, which advises Nevada’s sports books on betting lines, gives Williams 9-to-5 odds of winning her fourth U.S. Open title.
Serbia’s Novak Djokovic is the top men’s seed and the 3-2 favorite to win his first title in New York.
Rafael Nadal, the defending champion from Spain, is seeded second and Switzerland’s Roger Federer is third. Federer, a five-time U.S. Open champion, is trying to extend his streak of winning at least one Grand Slam title every year since 2003.
Play will begin as scheduled at 11 a.m. local time tomorrow after the National Tennis Center sustained “minimal damage” from Hurricane Irene, organizers said. Among the nine early matches, Ryan Harrison of the U.S. plays 27th-seeded Marin Cilic of Croatia in Louis Armstrong Stadium.
Mardy Fish, at No. 8 the top American seed, will play Tobias Kamke of Germany in the first match on Arthur Ashe Court, where Venus Williams and Federer will headline in the evening session.
Williams was sidelined from July 2010 till June, and her ranking fell to the lowest since 1997 after she lost in the fourth round of Wimbledon. She was No. 172 when U.S. Open officials announced on July 21 that she would use a special ranking to join the 128-player field.
A late July title at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, California, pushed Williams to 79th; another two weeks later at the Rogers Cup in Toronto boosted the American to No. 31.
She is ranked 29th now after withdrawing in the second round of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati last week with a toe injury.
“I’ve been in the hospital before, but this is a whole different level of comeback from the bottom to hopefully the top,” she told reporters after her first-round victory at Stanford. “I’m a better player this month than I was last month and than I was the month prior.”
Williams, who won the U.S. Open in 1999, 2002 and 2008, returns to a women’s field far different than two years ago.
Two-time defending champion Kim Clijsters of Belgium is out with a strained stomach muscle. The winners of the last two Grand Slam tournaments, China’s Li Na at the French Open and the Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon, were first-time major winners.
None of the top five seeds for this year’s U.S. Open -- Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, Vera Zvonareva and Maria Sharapova of Russia, Victoria Azarenka of Belarus and Kvitova -- was in that group two years ago. The top five women’s seeds in 2009 were Dinara Safina, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Elena Dementieva and Jelena Jankovic.
Neither of the top two seeds this year, Wozniacki and Zvonareva, has won a Grand Slam title.
Serena Williams remains one of America’s most popular and recognizable athletes. She is second only to her sister among all tennis players on the Davie Brown Index, which is compiled by Dallas-based The Marketing Arm to measure the marketability of athletes and other celebrities.
Venus ranks 100th and Serena 153th of about 2,900 people on the list. Federer, the top tennis man, is No. 626. Wozniacki is No. 2,129.
Serena Williams’s DBI rank is based in large part on her 92 percent public awareness, which puts her among the top 15 of all American athletes and roughly equal to basketball’s Kobe Bryant and singer Taylor Swift.
Forbes magazine estimated in May that Serena Williams made $12 million in annual earnings from endorsements and winnings.
Williams had a DBI rank of 134 before the 2009 U.S. Open, where she was two points from losing a semifinal match to Clijsters when she was called for a foot fault on a second serve. She then was penalized a point for verbally abusing the lineswoman, ending the match.
Her score for consumer likability, one of the components of the DBI, was at a career-high 75.34 on July 13, 2009. By Sept. 22, 2009, her score was down to a career-low 67.05.
Williams rebounded to a score of 71.48 in the latest DBI survey this April. Robert Passikoff, founder and president of New York-based marketing firm Brand Keys Inc., said in a telephone interview that Williams’s long time in the public spotlight allowed her to overcome the 2009 dip.
“Heritage counts,” said Passikoff, whose research focuses on brand loyalty. “What you’re looking for is the emotional bond between the person and the group, and it actually has less to do with being No. 1.”
Williams, who has won a women’s record $33.4 million on tennis courts, has less than $600,000 in winnings this year because of her injury-shortened season.
David, of The Marketing Arm, said Williams’s athleticism, smile and attitude allowed the 2009 episode to make only a short-term dent in her market appeal because fans saw it as an aberration.
Williams’s DBI score for endorsement potential was at a career-best 68.5 in April. Her website lists Nike Inc. (NKE), Amer Sports Oyj (AMEAS)’s Wilson Sporting Goods and Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ) among her corporate sponsors.
“She has that confidence, bordering on cocky or arrogant at times, but she does stay just on the side of confident that people like,” David said. “I think people have latched onto that.”
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