The Future of Federer: Why Roger made the switch from Nike to Uniqlo

by: Ed McGrogan | August 25, 2018

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WATCH—Roger Federer addresses his switch from Nike to Uniqlo at Wimbledon:

NEW YORK—He’s worn tuxedo-inspired shorts, tennis-friendly Air Jordans and has a well-documented relationship with style maven Anna Wintour. But Roger Federer’s biggest New York City fashion statement may have taken place this past Wednesday, on the 22nd floor of the Park Hyatt hotel in Manhattan, when the 20-time Grand Slam singles champion said these words:

“I really wanted to make the best apparel, the best-looking apparel for a tennis player in recent years. I want to re-do that, and recreate the coolest things with Uniqlo.”

After 20 fruitful years with Nike, Federer caused a stir in the tennis and business worlds when he inked a 10-year contract with Uniqlo, the Japanese clothing retailer that is better known for its casual lifestyle apparel than for its athletic pursuits. A former sponsor of Novak Djokovic and current outfitter of Japanese pro Kei Nishikori, Uniqlo’s addition of Federer is the fashion equivalent of the Los Angeles Lakers acquiring LeBron James. It will be jarring to see both future Hall of Famers in new, unfamiliar threads, but both veterans feel they have a lot more to offer in their respective sports—and each move was made with an eye off their respective courts.

“I had an opportunity to look at what’s out there, and we approached Uniqlo,” explains Federer, who consulted with Vogue’s Wintour once negotiations began. “I thought it would be a wonderful step into new endeavors, an entrepreneurial stage, incorporating philanthropy, innovation and new regions of the world.”

As has been reported, a sticking point with Federer and Nike was the American company’s insistence that he would be paid only if he was playing. That’s not the case with Uniqlo, which envisions Federer transitioning from tennis player to global ambassador, with a possible integration into the company’s LifeWear brand.

“We’re most proud of the length of the contract—the commitment,” says John Jay, Uniqlo’s global creative director. “The greatest impact from Roger Federer is yet to come, and that’s what we’re going to work so hard on.”



Federer in Nike, at the 2005 US Open. (Getty Images)

I have always been a fan of Roger Federer because of how well he represents tennis, a rigid sport that so often hurts itself with overscheduling and conflicting governing bodies. For a time, I was also a fan of Roger Federer in the purest sense of the word—every win was celebrated, every loss was mourned, and everything he wore was important.

Which meant that when I attended my first live tennis tournament, the 2005 US Open, I had to have Federer’s yellow Nike headband.

“There’s certain colors on the court I don’t like to wear,” Federer says when asked about his perfect on-court outfit. “You haven’t seen me in yellow very much, for instance. In details it’s fine, but not in the big color.”

The mid-aughts were a baggier time for the lithe Swiss, in sartorial terms, and he would bag plenty of trophies, too. The ’05 Open was the second of five consecutive titles at Flushing Meadows, a sublime run that saw Federer force his way into the record books and become a household name, both to Americans and non-tennis fans.

In that half-decade, Federer would find the form that heralded a new, power baseline era in men’s tennis, one that inspired Djokovic and Rafael Nadal—Nike’s Andre Agassi to its 21st-century Pete Sampras—and whose effect is still felt today. It also saw an evolution in Federer’s style, from louder, aggressive looks to refined, elegant silhouettes. By the 2007 US Open, Federer was clad in all-black evening wear, an iconic ensemble that signaled his passion for fashion.

“I thought it really looks cool,” Federer told me in press 11 years ago after a routine win under the lights. “In New York you can do such a thing. Nowhere else in the world. I really thought it looked good. I hope the fans enjoyed it, too.”

In truth, Federer’s on-court looks haven’t varied much since then. With some notable exceptions—primarily the 2017 Australian Open (above), one of the most important tournaments of his career—he’s worn clean, fitted tennis clothes emblazoned with the popular “RF” duogram. (Federer is very sensitive to fan reaction, and insisted that he and his team are working as hard as possible to eventually bring that logo to Uniqlo). With Uniqlo, that’s not likely to change, but there’s a sense that he will be more willing to push the proverbial envelope, and will be encouraged to do so.

“I think sometimes tennis has lost its way to just ‘performance,’” Federer says. “The tennis shoes we wear are almost not wearable on the street because they are so aggressive.” (Federer is expected to wear Nike shoes for the foreseeable future; a black pair accompanied the all-red Uniqlo outfit Federer will wear during US Open night matches.) “I think it's the same thing that happened with the prints, and everything going on on the court. I try to bring simplicity and craftsmanship and beauty back onto the tennis court.”

But just as important to Federer is what he can bring off of the tennis court, which is the biggest difference between his partnerships with Nike and Uniqlo.

“I have so many appearances—just take all my press conferences,” Federer says a bespoke, navy blue suit. “There’s no reason that I have to show up in a tennis outfit at a press conference. I could start showing up like this if I wanted to. People would look at me funny in the locker room, saying, ‘Where are you going?’ And I could tell them, ‘I’m going to a press conference.’

“There’s ideas on my side, from press conferences to trophy ceremonies to when you’re walking on court. There’s a lot of different pieces that assemble an entire tennis outfit.”



Federer's first match in Uniqlo came at Wimbledon, a tournament where he's flexed his fashion muscle. (Getty Images)

When Federer walked onto Centre Court without the Nike swoosh on his shirt—or shorts, or blazer, or cardigan—for the first time this summer, he was nervous. Wimbledon’s emperor didn’t know what the reaction would be to his new clothes, or how he would feel playing in them.

While Federer was unsuccessful in defending his Wimbledon title, he walked away from the tournament assured that he made the right decision in leaving Nike for Uniqlo.

“The response has been good,” says Federer. “People who know me, they trust me, that the judgment was the right one in this case.”

At the US Open, Federer will walk onto Arthur Ashe Stadium in an outfit designed in collaboration with noted artistic director Christophe Lemaire. It’s an outfit that is available for pre-order at Uniqlo’s website for $79.80—that's the combined price of the shirt and shorts. That’s also roughly the cost of a Federer shirt during his salad days with Nike.

Federer’s union with Uniqlo allows him to have a hand in designing tennis and lifestyle clothes, and will see him venture into new markets, particularly in Asia. And because of the company’s lower price points—certainly more so than the majority of clothiers worn by professional players—more of Federer’s fans will be able to wear what he is wearing on the court.

“Who are you wearing today?” the debonair 37-year-old was asked by a style editor during the small, 30-minute gathering. This was Federer's response:

“All Uniqlo. It’s very easy to wear. It’s simple yet it feels like there’s been a lot of thought put into it. It’s affordable as well—not everybody can afford Tom Ford.

“That’s what’s so beautiful about Uniqlo—it’s accessible for people. Not everybody can afford Nike, too, or some other brands. It’s expensive. I know Uniqlo doesn’t have a store everywhere, like some other brands, but we’ll get there. We’ll work hard at it.”



Federer will be wearing Uniqlo on and off the court. (Ed McGrogan)

Federer was amiable on this late-summer day, and in a comfortable setting. There was no bad blood evident with Nike; he regularly spoke of his time with the company. After this conversation, he would head to Uniqlo’s Fifth Avenue store to meet 150 fans that had waited in line earlier in the morning, hoping to secure a seat at the exclusive meet-and-greet.

Before he departed, I asked him, having conquered everything in singles, if would he ever consider playing more doubles as his career wound down? An occasional team with Nishikori, who idolized Federer while growing up, would seem a natural fit.

“I’m a good singles player,” Federer says with a laugh. “I always wanted to play with some other great players—maybe Rafa or Novak; Stan [Wawrinka] I’ve played with. I think [Kei and I are] both very excited to be on the same team as Uniqlo.

“Maybe down the road I’m open for it. What I will not do is play doubles at the end of my career and not singles. This is not going to happen.”

While Federer won’t be threatening Bob and Mike Bryan in the record books, it’s clear that he’s found a new, and important, doubles partner.


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