Thursday 23 February 2017

Sharapova set to reap rewards of Grand comeback

Mark Hodgkinson, at Wimbledon

Prepare to have a cannon filled with blonde hair, glitter and $100 bills fired into your face.

When these Wimbledon championships began, the best possible comeback story would have been a victory for Serena Williams, who had hardly played for a year because of gashed feet and a blood clot in her lung, but the women's game would settle for the relaunch of Maria 'Masha' Sharapova.

Every Wimbledon final feels like a global event, but if Sharapova were to win the Rosewater Dish for a second time, this match would resonate far beyond the lawn, the Village and the tennis hard-core.

This will primarily be a sporting occasion, but it could also end up being the greatest ambush marketing event in the history of the All England Club; the reinforcing of Brand Maria.

All Sharapova has to do is beat Petra Kvitova, a young Czech who will be making her first appearance in a Grand Slam final.

In the seven years since Sharapova won this tournament as a 17-year-old, it has not always been, to borrow a phrase that the Siberian sometimes uses, a time of "rainbows and butterflies".

When a surgeon took a knife to Sharapova's shoulder, it was not clear whether she would ever compete again, and this is the first time she has reached the final of a Slam since she won the 2008 Australian Open.

Some cannot warm to Sharapova, finding her too pushy, too screechy or too rich for their tastes, yet if you scrape away the money and try to block out the sound, there is an affecting story underneath it all about a tennis player who had to consider the possibility, in her early 20s, that she would never swing a racket again.

Some would have it that a victory for Sharapova today would have none of the innocence of her win in the summer of 2004.

But no one should imagine for a moment that a post-innocence Sharapova in a Wimbledon final is somehow a new thing as Sharapova was never that innocent.

At the age of 13, when asked by an American television crew whether she would rather win Wimbledon or earn $20m in endorsements, she immediately retorted: "I would choose to win Wimbledon, because then the millions will come."

Should Sharapova win this time, there would be no doubt in anyone's mind that Sharapova would be fully aware of the magnitude of her achievement.

There are two Maria Sharapovas, Maria the Businesswoman and Maria the Tennis Player. Sharapova has long been No 1 in the tennis rich list, with Forbes consistently judging her to be the world's highest-earning sportswoman, and now she is starting to mobilise in the tennis rankings again.

She was ranked sixth at the start of the tournament, and by making the final she is already guaranteed to be back in the top five on Monday for the first time in three years. Should she win the title, she would become the No 3.

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And, on what is supposed to be the 'cleanest' stadium in tennis, almost devoid of branding, Sharapova could strengthen her commercial image and that of her sponsors.

What better way to publicise "Sugarpova", the range of sweets that she will soon be selling, than to win her first Grand Slam trophy for more than three years.

Her other sponsors would clearly love for her to step out of the billboards and win another major.

No amount of airbrushing or digital re-editing is going to disguise the fact that Sharapova, though she is yet to drop a set this fortnight, has not always played with great poise and authority.

But Sharapova is not seeking perfection today; just another Wimbledon title and the confirmation that she is back. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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