She captured big prize money, record TV ratings and tennis hearts around the world and, from a marketing perspective, the ball is now in Eugenie Bouchard's court.
With her inspired run Down Under, the 19-year-old Ms. Bouchard earned $550,000 and will see her ranking on the WTA Tour skyrocket from No. 31 to a projected No. 19. Her run to the semi-finals of the Australian Open won the attention of former champions, ignited excitement on social media and drew new viewers to the sport. Now the agent for the gifted blond star says she could be more marketable than Maria Sharapova, and sports marketing experts project she has the potential to make millions.
TSN says this was the most-watched Australian Open in the history of Canadian television. Some 1.6 million Canadians saw Ms. Bouchard beat Ana Ivanovic in the quarter-finals, becoming the first Canadian singles player since Carling Bassett at the 1984 U.S Open to make a Grand Slam semi-final. Some 4.4 million tuned in to see her lose to No. 4-ranked Li Na in that match. By comparison, 5.1 million viewers watched Game 7 of last year's Eastern Conference quarter-final between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins.
The relative unknown has suddenly arrived, winning the affections of fans in Australia, not to mention her native Quebec. On Wednesday night, a crowd gathered at a Montreal sports bar on St. Laurent Blvd. to watch the Bouchard-Li match on the big screens. Among them was Eugène Lapierre, vice-president of Professional Tennis in Quebec, who recalled visiting Paris during the French Open and finding fans huddled around TVs watching tennis.
"I remember remarking back then, 'Look at how packed the bars are, we're a long way from that happening in Canada,'" Mr. Lapierre recalled. "Well, I think now that day has arrived."
In 2012, the native of Westmount, Que., was a junior Wimbledon champion. She started 2013 as a rookie on the WTA Tour, ranked No. 147, and ended as the tour's Newcomer of the Year, at No. 32. The $550,000 she won in Melbourne, between singles and doubles, is more prize money than she had earned during her entire pro career. And her earning power goes way beyond the court: Her agent, Sam Duvall told Australian paper The Age that Bouchard has the potential to be more marketable than the superstar Ms. Sharapova.
"If Maria is the bar, Genie has the ability to exceed that bar," Mr. Duvall said. "She has to perform on the court to do that, and Genie knows that. Maria has won four Slams. Her marketability, if she performs, I have to say is better than anyone on tour. She is the total package. It's unbelievable how focused this girl is.''
Nike has endorsed Ms. Bouchard for two years, and in November she visited the company's world headquarters in Beaverton, Ore. She was welcomed by an impressive wall of glass-encased Eugenie Bouchard posters to a 200-acre campus that has the company's cutting-edge sports research labs and footwear and apparel design facilities, where athletes test new products.
The homepage of the Nike Tennis website on Thursday has Ms. Bouchard's likeness right there with Ms. Sharapova's. The Montrealer is pictured modeling the aqua tank top and dark striped tennis skirt for which she became so recognized in Melbourne. Nike Tweeted out a shot of the Canadian during her run with the punchy cutline: "Show the world you are ready."
"Genie is playing on one of the largest platforms for tennis, exposing her to new fans from all over the world," said Claire Rankine, communications director at Nike Canada. "We anticipated this being a breakout year for her and we're just at the start of the season."
She earned the adoration of "Genie's Army," a group of Australian fans with no connection to Canada. She did live interviews on ESPN's set with Chris Evert, who repeatedly called her "the future of women's tennis." A Bouchard commercial for Pinty's health-conscious chicken nuggets ran regularly during the broadcasts, the young spokeswoman dicing veggies and popping a tray of nuggets into the oven after a day on the tennis court. Since the tournament began barely two weeks ago, her official Facebook page has earned an additional 80,000 Likes. She now has more than 100,000 followers on Twitter, sneaking up on Milos Raonic, who has 131,000.
"Marketers have male athletic role models coming out of their ears, but they don't have nearly as many female sports stars who could be recognized in all corners of the world and have all the attributes they want," said Nigel Currie, director of sports marketing for brandRapport, a London-based sports and entertainment marketing agency. "I would expect the same type of companies who are drawn to Sharapova to be drawn to Bouchard – glamour watches, cosmetics, fashion. Her selling points are she speaks great English, communicates well, and has a very feminine look that appeals to men and women and to that Madison Avenue area of marketing, meaning big global brands that want their ads seen all over the world. And being a Canadian tennis player makes her a little bit unique, and marketers like unique. If she can rise into the top 10 players on tour, then the top three, she will have enormous marketing potential."
Of course, consistent results will ultimately determine her earning potential. The world remembers glamorous 1990s tennis icon Anna Kournikova, who had worldwide popularity without the legitimacy of WTA titles to back it up.
"All indications are that she is confident but not cocky and she's in it for the competition rather than the pure celebrity," Shawn McBride, of U.S.-based Ketchum Sports and Entertainment, said of Ms. Bouchard. "Brands want an authentic sportsman, and she seems to be a very well-calculated leap of faith as far as newcomers in the marketplace."