Rafa Nadal dragged into ugly row amid uproar around Novak Djokovic

The Spaniard has found himself in the firing line as a heated debate around Novak Djokovic rages on.

Pictured right to left, Rafa Nadal and his great tennis rival, Novak Djokovic.
Rafa Nadal has been dragged into a heated debate about his great rival, Novak Djokovic. Pic: Getty

The former coach of Serena Williams and the CEO of Lacoste have dragged Rafael Nadal into an ugly sponsorship furore surrounding Novak Djokovic. The controversy surrounds comments from former Nike tennis director Mike Nakajima, who explained why Djokovic was never brought on board at the American sportswear giant.

Nike famously sponsored Roger Federer before he jumped ship to Uniqlo, as well as Nadal and other tennis legends including Williams - the 23-time women's grand slam champion. Nakajima was the man in charge of Nike’s tennis division when Federer signed his long-term deal with the company, and in a recent book called “The Roger Federer Effect” - which is co-authored by Simon Chambers and Simon Graf - he labelled the decision to allow the Swiss to join Japanese giant Uniqlo an "atrocity".

However, it was Nakajima's comments about why Nike never signed 22-time grand slam champion Djokovic that have raised eyebrows. The Serb counts Asics and Lacoste as two of his biggest sponsors but the former Nike tennis director says it's the 35-year-old's off-court image that led to the American sportswear giants to steer clear of him.

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“He could well be the most successful tennis player ever. But there’s always a dark cloud around him. It’s like he brings it upon himself," Nakajima said. "He hits the lineswoman at the US Open (in 2020) and gets disqualified? It happens, I guess.

“But why does it always happen to Novak? Or the whole controversy about the Covid-19 vaccination. Now, as a brand: do I want to be behind somebody who always has controversy around him? Or do I want to go with an athlete with a squeaky clean image?”

The top grand slam winners in the Open Era of tennis (since 1968). (Photo by Mahmut Resul Karaca/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
The top grand slam winners in the Open Era of tennis (since 1968). (Photo by Mahmut Resul Karaca/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Serena Williams' former coach Patrick Mouratoglou was among those to condemn the comments from the former Nike tennis director. Mouratoglou - who was Williams’ long-time coach before they parted ways in 2022 - jumped to Djokovic's defence and said he preferred a "real human being" like the Serb, as opposed to a "perfect untrue image of perfection", in what could be seen as a subtle dig at Federer and Nadal.

The Frenchman wrote: “To answer Nakashima [sic] about Nike and Novak: Whether we agree or not, like or dislike Novak, I personally prefer a real human being with his qualities, his beliefs and his flows [sic] than a perfect untrue image of perfection. Sanctifying perfection is denying our condition as humans.”

Remarks about Novak Djokovic spark heated debate

Typically, it kicked off a heated debate between tennis fans on social media, with one asking Mouratoglou: “So, you don’t think a real human being can be genuinely nice and have good principles?

“Accepting deceit and bad behaviour as standard human flaws is lowering standards for our kids and the kids you coach. Do you tell kids at your academy to behave as Roger & Rafa or as Joker?”

To which the veteran coach replied: “I tell them to be themselves. This is the best value. Not trying to be someone else.” He added: “Being a good person doesn’t mean being perfect. Values are essential as drivers to our lives. On the other hand, we also have to accept our imperfections. We are humans not gods.”

Lacoste CEO Thierry Guibert also jumped to Djokovic's defence, while dragging Nadal into the ugly furore. Replying to a thread in which some fans insisted that Nike would never choose to do a sponsorship deal with Djokovic, the Lacoste boss hit back by claiming his company "would never choose Nadal."

"Lacoste is so proud to have Nole and would never choose Nadal (with all due respect to him). Thanks @NDjokofan for the English translation," Lacoste CEO Guibert tweeted.

Lacoste is understood to be Djokovic's most lucrative sponsorship partner, contributing around $10 million to the Serbian superstar annually. The 22-time major winner has been with the French giant since mid-2017, when he signed his first deal with Lacoste.

The French clothing company has stood by the 35-year-old throughout his controversial vaccination saga, after other big-name partners such as UKG and Peugeot severed ties with Djokovic. The Serb's other major sponsors include Head, Hublot and Raiffeisen Bank.

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