Correction Appended: June 25, 2012.
When Maria Sharapova sank to her knees on the red clay of the Stade Roland-Garros in Paris on June 9 after winning the French Open singles final, her emotional celebration marked the completion of a long comeback. In 2008 reconstructive shoulder surgery sidelined the Russian prodigy, who had won three Grand Slam titles by the age of 20, for 10 months. She watched her ranking plummet all the way to No. 126 and listened as critics wrote her off as a flash in the pan who burned brightly and then burned out. "When I won Wimbledon at 17, I thought that would be the most treasured moment of my career," she said after the French final. "But when I fell down on my knees today, I realized that this was extremely special and even more so."
Her victory was proof she has staying power on and off the court. Sharapova's agent, Max Eisenbud, tells TIME that Sharapova, now 25, looks poised to sign two more lucrative sponsorship deals, cementing her place as the world's highest-earning female sports star. Of the top 10 earners in women's sports, a further six are her on-court rivals, including Americans Serena and Venus Williams and Danish star Caroline Wozniacki. They'll all slug it out at the Wimbledon Championships, which begin June 25. For fans, it's not just a chance to see great athleticism. It's an opportunity to watch the world's richest sportswomen trying to obliterate one another.
Top female tennis stars have raked in riches for decades, but in recent years the spread of the women's game to new parts of the world, along with important changes in how the sport is run, has helped women's tennis generate levels of economic activity and spectator interest previously unseen in women's sports. A revamped schedule has made players more dependable, allowing tournaments to create effective promotional campaigns and woo new sponsors. That's helped grow the prize pot. In 1970 female tennis players competed for total prize money of $300,000, and tournaments frequently paid female players a tenth of the winnings their male counterparts enjoyed. But prize money on the women's tour has since increased from $75 million in 2008 to $96 million in 2012. Next year it will reach $100 million. At Wimbledon, the women will compete for the $1.8 million winner's check the same prize awarded to the men's champion.
Players, especially the ones with Hollywood good looks, can bank even more by leveraging their brands off the court. Sharapova blonde, statuesque and 189 cm tall now fronts campaigns for Evian, Samsung, Tag Heuer and Cole Haan, and in 2010 she secured a deal with Nike that guaranteed her $70 million over eight years. In August, ahead of the U.S. Open, she will no longer just lend her face and name to products she plans to launch Sugarpova, her own candy line, which will include gummy bears and gumballs that resemble tennis balls. "I've been the face of many products," she tells TIME. "But I've never actually, you know, had to spend my own money and put my energy into something that started from scratch."
But it works both ways. Players' personal empires Venus Williams has her own fashion line, Li Na is the face of Häagen-Dazs in China pump up the sport's popularity too. "Our athletes have done an incredible job crossing over into lifestyle and fashion," says Andrew Walker, chief marketing officer at the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), the sport's organizing body, which oversees 52 tournaments and promotes the sport globally. "That provides a great entry point for us to reach potential new fans."
Men's tennis still has greater global reach it's broadcast in 185 markets, compared with 163 for the women. And it's still more lucrative: its players will compete for $130 million in prize money this year, which is $34 million more than the ladies. But its success rubs off on the women's game by boosting the WTA's exposure. Tennis is perhaps the only professional sport in which men and women share the same stage at joint tournaments year-round.
Now women's tennis is catching up fast. During the 2011 season, viewership of WTA tournaments increased 73% globally, and overall broadcast time and tournament attendance both rose by 12%. In the U.S., audiences on ESPN2 shot up by 70% adding more than 4 million viewers. Over the past two years, the WTA secured $160 million in new sponsorship deals. Christian Dau, director of corporate social responsibility at Porsche, says the reach of female tennis players, who collectively have more than 34 million social-network followers, boosts their corporate appeal. The world of men's sports offers potential sponsors numerous wide-reaching global platforms in golf, soccer, Formula One and other sports. "The WTA," he says, "is probably the only entity able to offer a truly global platform in women's sport."