Maria Sharapova finished last season inside the top 5 in women’s tennis for the first time since
2007. At Nike Inc.’s Cole Haan unit, she’s No. 1.
The fourth-seeded Russian, who beat Argentina’s Gisela Dulko today in her opening match at the Australian Open, suffered a serious shoulder injury in 2008 after winning in Melbourne, the third of her major titles. The time off gave the 24-year-old a chance to pursue another interest: fashion.
The $148 flat ballet shoe she designed is one of the best sellers for the Nike wholly-owned subsidiary. She was forced into a nine-month break from the game in mid-2008 because of shoulder surgery, giving her a chance to focus on something other than tennis, Sharapova said. Her first Cole Haan collection was introduced in the spring of 2009.
“It was really an experiment for me,” said Sharapova, who gets a percentage of sales from both her Cole Haan line and a collection of Nike tennis dresses, which she also designs. “I certainly did not think I would be making any money from this because I had zero experience.”
Sharapova won her first major at Wimbledon age 17 in 2004. Grand slam titles followed at the 2006 U.S. Open and the 2008 Australian Open, making her the highest-paid female athlete in the world. The Russian, who moved to the U.S. at age seven, earns $25 million a year from prize money and endorsements with companies including Nike and Swiss luxury watch brand Tag Heuer, according to Forbes. In tennis, only 16-time major winner Roger Federer and second-ranked Rafael Nadal earn more.
Having dropped to No. 126 three years ago following surgery, Sharapova last year climbed back up the rankings thanks to a semifinals spot at Roland Garros and a runner-up place at Wimbledon. She also won in Rome and Cincinnati.
Sharapova gives Nike and Cole Haan, a clothing, shoes, handbag and accessory brand based in Yarmouth, Maine, access to a global audience, Nigel Currie, director of London-based sports marketing agency brandRapport said in an interview.
“There are very few sports stars, in particular in women’s sports, that are instantly recognizable around the world, and Sharapova is one of them,” Currie said.
Cole Haan generates less than 3 percent of total sales at Nike, the world’s largest sporting-goods company. The company declined to release sales figures for Sharapova’s shoe line.
Getting Sharapova on board gave the brand the chance to connect with a “younger” audience, said Ivan Wicksteed, Cole Haan’s chief marketing officer.
Chasing Slam Success
Sharapova comes into 2012 with more confidence after getting further into majors last season, which allowed her to finish inside the top 10 for the first time since 2008. She was No. 1 in May 2008.
“It was really important to have that type of year, with better results,” Sharapova said. “As with any sport, you gain confidence on where your game is and belief.”
An ankle injury sustained in Tokyo in September derailed a shot at taking over the No. 1 ranking from Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki at the end of last year.
To finish the season that way was “disappointing,” said Sharapova, who pulled out of a lead-up event in Brisbane two weeks ago because of her left ankle. “Injuries are always the toughest part.”
Entering the Australian Open having last played on the WTA Tour in October is going to be “a bit different,” said the Siberian-born right-hander, who has been training in Melbourne for the past two weeks.
She had little trouble against the 68th-ranked Dulko today, winning 6-0, 6-1 in 58 minutes.
Coming up with a new design that will rival the success of the ballet shoe may not be as easy.
“When you start with -- let’s call it a ‘luck shoe’ -- it’s pretty tough,” Sharapova said. “The great thing is that now you have customers that are coming back to get another pair in a different color when the one that they bought wears out.”