Maria Sharapova faces the biggest challenge of her tennis career – namely her return to the sport after a 15-month drugs ban – and it is not just her continued sporting success that is in the spotlight.
Off the court, where she makes the bulk of her earnings, the question is – can she be as big a sponsor draw as she was before her enforced absence?
The 29-year-old will return to action on Wednesday, 26 April, in Stuttgart after being handed a wildcard.
Although some fellow players have expressed misgivings, she has the support of the WTA tour, and her fans.
And, with biggest commercial rival Serena Williams announcing she is pregnant and facing time away from the game, the Russian’s return is certainly timely.
In the year from June 2015, Forbes estimates the five-time Grand Slam winner made $1.9m (£1.5m) in prize money from playing, but a whopping $20m from endorsements, a sum matched only by Williams.
And it is this primary source of earnings that Sharapova will be looking to reinvigorate.
Maria Sharapova attends the Evian Brand Ambassador & 750 ml Sports Bottle Launch in March 2017
IMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
Sharapova has participated in Evian promotional events during her ban
“During her time out there will have been some continued relationship with her sponsors,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at the University of Salford.
“But I am sure there will have been some sort of penalty clause in her sponsor contracts for incurring a suspension.”
Following Sharapova’s admission in March 2016 that she had tested positive for a banned drug at that year’s Australian Open, she was initially banned by the International Tennis Federation for two years, later reduced on appeal.
But unlike golfer Tiger Woods, who haemorrhaged sponsors very quickly after his extra-marital affairs came to light, Sharapova’s backers waited to see how things played out.
“That was because they had invested so much money and effort into their deals,” says Prof Chadwick.
“Also, to terminate deals could have been dangerous as she might come back successfully, and if you as a sponsor have decided to cancel her contract then the door has been left wide open for a rival.”