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Volume 20 No. 41
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Deals give rising star fiscal boost

On the eve of the Australian Open, world No. 3-ranked player Victoria Azarenka has signed deals with Nike and Wilson, pushing her toward the ranks of the world’s highest-paid female athlete endorsers.

Azarenka considered deals with Under Armour, Yonex and even Red Bull, said her agent John Tobias, noting that the energy drink maker is considering a clothing line. But Azarenka, routinely pegged as one of the best players on the WTA Tour not to have yet won a Grand Slam, decided to re-sign with Nike in a four-year deal likely to net her around $4 million annually, presuming she stays in the top five.

Victoria Azarenka renewed with Nike but is changing rackets, from Head to Wilson.
Tobias, head of tennis for Lagardère Unlimited, maintained that Nike’s top two female tennis players, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, are in decline and would be overtaken by the likes of Azarenka. While that is certainly debatable, there is no doubt that at age 22, Azarenka could be a star for many years to come.

Sharapova, 24, and Williams, 30 have suffered significant injuries in recent years. Williams last week even told an interviewer she does not love tennis, suggesting to some that her stay in the game may not last much longer.
Born in Belarus, Azarenka has lived in Scottsdale, Ariz., since she was 13.

While she chose not to switch her apparel, she is switching tennis rackets — something that in the insular world of tennis always causes heads to turn. Her new four-year deal with Wilson will bring her more than $2 million over that term, a huge sum for a racket deal. She previously played with Head.

Players are loath to switch rackets, often feeling their racket is the secret to their success. But Tobias pointed out that the newly lengthened WTA offseason gave Azarenka time to try out the new Wilson racket and become comfortable with the equipment.

“It’s very rare for a player ranked in the top five to switch,” he said. “The reason she was successful in switching is the WTA Tour season ended so much earlier now. They were finished on Oct. 21, which is a huge advantage for anyone to switch manufacturers. She got a full 2 1/2 months training with the racket.”

Azarenka last year earned roughly $3 million in prize money and exhibition guarantees. Assuming she earns the same level this year — and she already took in a low-six-figure check for playing an exhibition on New Year’s Day in Thailand to mark that country’s king’s birthday — she could be looking at a total take for 2012 in the high seven figures.
Sharapova, Williams, the Chinese star Li Na and Caroline Wozniacki, the world No. 1-ranked player in tennis, the top-earning sport for female athletes, are all in the annual eight-figure range.

The Australian Open begins next week.