NEW YORK • Maria Sharapova's outfit sparkled even if her play sometimes did not during her Grand Slam return at the US Open, but the Russian's run to the fourth round showed she is back in business on and off the tennis court.
Playing her first Grand Slam since returning from a 15-month doping ban, she proved a polarising presence at Flushing Meadows, feted by adoring fans but vilified by some of her rivals.
For television rights holders and the United States Tennis Association, seeing Sharapova's name on the entry list was akin to winning the lottery, guaranteeing a bump in ratings and capacity crowds at the 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium.
With the tournament ravaged by injuries and withdrawals, the former world No. 1's return provided a splash of glitz and glamour.
She strolled onto floodlit Arthur Ashe as if on a catwalk, wearing a jet black dress that sparkled with Swarovski crystals for her opening match against Simona Halep and duly dumped the second seed out of the tournament.
Her US Open ended with a 7-5, 4-6, 2-6 loss to Latvian Anastasija Sevastova on Sunday, but her week-long run will help polish the Russian's tarnished brand.
"Sharapova's doping transgression was not terribly egregious, neither performance-enhancing nor intentional, and her ban seemed unduly harsh," Bob Dorfman of Baker Street Advertising said.
"I suspect that's why Nike suspended their relationship, but did not drop her.
"And with their No. 1 endorser Serena Williams off the court indefinitely, Sharapova's first Grand Slam event since her return is a grand opportunity for Nike to capitalise on America's love for comeback performances."
"In order for her to regain widespread marketability, her performance will have to steadily improve over time, while any further unforced errors off the court would need to be eliminated," said David Carter, principal of the Sports Business Group.
Sharapova was unable to deliver extended stretches of brilliant tennis at the US Open but there was every sign that the 30-year-old is set to climb back up the rankings and reclaim her spot as one of the best-paid women athletes.
The doubts surrounding her stamina to win seven matches in a fortnight were borne out on Sunday as she finally capitulated, hitting 51 unforced errors in her defeat.
However, her three victories in New York will likely push her into the top 100, earning direct entry into next year's Australian Open.
"It's been a really great ride in the last week," Sharapova said.
"Obviously coming off a loss, it's a quick turnaround in order to reflect on the last eight and nine days.
"Ultimately I can take a lot from this week. I'm thankful for the opportunity."
For 11 straight years, she topped the Forbes list before slipping to second last year and dropping from the list completely this year.
American Express, Avon and Tag Heuer did not renew their sponsorship deals with her, while retained arrangements with Nike, Head, Evian and Porsche included huge reductions while she was off the tour for over a year.
REUTERS, THE TIMES, LONDON
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