In the moments before the top seed and eight-time Wimbledon champion was to give short shrift to a hapless Dusan Lajovic, rumours of a sartorial defection—which had been swirling since he emerged from clay-induced dormancy in June—were welcomingly substantiated by fact. Roger Federer’s lucrative—and until that Monday afternoon saunter on to Center Court, adamantine—relationship with Nike has officially ended upon his deciding that a decade-long, $300 million-plus contract with Japanese retailers Uniqlo was too alluring an offer to refuse.
Nike clothed Federer for 24 years, 20 major titles, through the outrageously successful segments of his career and the leanest. Over that period, the Oregon-based sportswear behemoth assembled for Federer the sharpest-looking outfits a tennis player could ask for; salient examples include the debonair, military-style jacket the Swiss sported as he walked out to take on Andy Roddick in the 2009 Wimbledon final, the 2015 French Open look characterised by a classy combination of Persian Violet (Purple to my untrained eye) and ‘Hot Lava’ (Salmon?) and, most recently, the design launched for his 2017 Sunshine Double campaign—an eye-catching palette of Stadium Green, Black and Volt. The last vestige of Federer’s association with Nike is footwear; Federer will continue to wear shoes decorated with the iconic RF logo—which he hopes to regain ownership of at some point in the future according to freelance Twitter sleuth Reem Abulleil—at this year’s tournament, as Uniqlo hasn’t yet entered the market for tennis shoes.
The timing of the deal appears well-thought-out. Federer severs his relationship with Nike at 36-going-on-37, an age at which he is undergoing the transition from global tennis superstar to a culturally venerated sporting relic. Not that he isn’t ubiquitously exalted within highbrow circles—literary heavyweights such as David Foster Wallace have been known to sing his praises—but it is still unknown how relevant Federer will be to the world sans tennis. A clear signal that he intends to build a brand image which transcends his stature in the sport is his willingness to be paraded as a “Global Brand Ambassador” for Uniqlo.
In that sense, this whole thing isn’t much about tennis—Federer jumped ship because he recognised that his commercial visibility pre- and post-retirement would be better served by becoming the face of a lesser-known brand than being overshadowed by the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lebron James (both of whom have been awarded with lifetime deals by Nike worth somewhere in the region of $1 billion) in remaining attached to a larger one, even if he has been with that larger one since his infancy as a player. It is significant also that Uniqlo will pay its latest acquisition even when he doesn’t play; this shows that like Barilla, the Italian Food Company that hitched its wagon to the world No.2 last year, it knows that Federer sells on name alone.
That the partnership with Federer started in 2018 suits Uniqlo foremostly due to its closeness to the next Summer Olympic Games, which take place in Tokyo two years from now. By that time, Federer’s star will presumably be tethered strongly to his new clothing sponsor, and the event itself presents a huge opportunity to market both him and Japan’s favourite sporting son, Kei Nishikori. If Federer is still playing in 2020, which is entirely plausible, he’ll surely be at the tail end of his career and, assuming that eternal tailgater Rafael Nadal does not equal or surpass his slam count, have cemented a legacy bigger than anything tennis has ever seen. If Uniqlo seeks to capitalise on the outpouring of praise that awaits Federer after he retires, what better time to team up with him than at this very moment, as the man leaves behind a collaboration that was symbiotically beneficial for many years and expands the scope of his off-court activity?
Indeed, it will take everyone time to adjust to seeing Federer in anything other than Nike apparel, for that is all we have ever seen him wear on a tennis court. Federer may still be in the adjustment phase himself, judging by the coyness with which he revealed the move.
He kept us guessing at Halle and Stuttgart, enjoying two last dances with his ex before announcing the pivot to Uniqlo by appearing on court clad in the crisp non-swooshed whites he wore to dispatch a Serb whom he’d had little trouble beating at SW19 last year, and even less this time around. He confirmed that no collective hallucination took place by defeating Lukas Lacko comparatively easily wearing the same clothing in the second round.
The way I see it, watching Federer acclimate to life beyond Nike is a small step we as fans must take to prepare for life after he hangs it up for good. Let go of mawkishness; the clothes matter a lot less than the capabilities of the person who plays in them. Embrace change as the only constant; there’ll come a day that, instead of lamenting Federer’s choice to wear a polo with an alien logo on it, we’ll be mourning his absence from professional tennis altogether.