PARIS: Rocked by Maria Sharapova’s failed drugs 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, told Agence France-Presse.
“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.
“According to our Celebrity DBI Index, of the 76 percent of people that know of her globally, 74 percent say they like her and 75 percent say they find her aspirational.
“Brands are currently waiting to see what further fall-out there might be but are seemingly cautious not to cut ties too quickly as those that do may allow other rivals to easily take their place.”
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 equaling 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 longtime 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.
Djokovic and Andy Murray, 28, will of course remain to carry the banner and even if the sport faces a scramble for its next poster boys and girls, experts insist tennis is bigger than individual attraction.
Japan’s Kei Nishikori, who is 26, and 25-year-old Canadian Milos Raonic are seen as key to future growth outside of Europe.
Then there are the four Grand Slams which are “incredibly strong brands in their own right”, added Stainer.
“In terms of commerciality, the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova have taken the women’s game to a new level, but women in sport is a much more attractive concept to sponsors now more than ever.
“Tennis’s appeal across a large number of international markets and audiences types means it is protected somewhat from individual and isolated issues such as this [the Sharapova affair].”