Roger Federer's split with Nike labelled 'atrocity' by former director

Mike Nakajima, Nike's former director of tennis, says the company missed the chance to market the Michael Jordan of tennis.

Roger Federer gives a thumbs up to fans.
Roger Federer's departure from Nike in 2018 has been labelled a huge mistake by the man who signed him as a teen, Mike Nakajima. (Photo by Han Yan/Xinhua via Getty Images) (Xinhua News Agency via Getty Ima)

A former Nike director has labelled the moment the company decided to part ways with Roger Federer as an 'atrocity', declaring the Swiss tennis star should have been with the sporting apparel company 'for life'. As part of a new book delving into Federer's storied career, Nike's former tennis director Mike Nakajima said there was a chance Federer could have been an icon for the company in the same way NBA legend Michael Jordan has been.

Federer and Nike boasted a long-standing relationship, dating back to when the American company first signed the aspiring star as a junior player. On the books at Nike since he was 13 years old, it wasn't until 2018 that Federer made a major move away from the company, signing a 10 year, $300 million deal with Japanese clothing company Uniqlo before his retirement in 2022.

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Nike had wanted to continue their relationship with Federer, but baulked at the opportunity believing they couldn't justify bettering the massive offer tabled by Uniqlo. In the book The Roger Federer Effect, Nakajima says it was a major mistake to let Federer go.

Nakajima himself had actually left Nike 12 months before negotiations with Federer, but said it was a huge miss from the business, particularly considering the ongoing success of their Jordan brand, some 20 years after Jordan last set foot on an NBA court.

“That should never have happened. For us to let somebody like that go, it’s an atrocity,” he says in the book. "Roger Federer belonged with Nike for the rest of his career. Just like Michael Jordan. Like LeBron James, like Tiger Woods.

"He’s right up there with the all-time greatest Nike athletes ever. I’m still disappointed. But it happened. I have to get over it. It wasn’t my decision and I wasn’t there for it.”

Nakajima said there was no reason Federer's popularity would remain high in the same way Jordan's has, particularly given the company already had experience marketing a retired athlete of that calibre. Meanwhile, there was no faulting Federer for accepting a $30 million per-year deal from Uniqlo when Nike was unlikely to better that offer.

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Nakajima went on to make an interesting comparison between Federer and his longtime rivals, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovics. The Swiss champion's popularity was ubiquitous across the world and continues following his retirement late last year.

Federer was open to being marketed early on, Nakajima said, and his natural charisma and understanding of how to connect with people made him the ideal face for the company's tennis ventures - particularly considering his unparalleled success in the sport. Nakajima said it Federer's continued popularity always 'astounded' him considering a great many high-profile sports stars invariably have their detractors.

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

Roger Federer, pictured here with wife Mirka.
Roger Federer with wife Mirka. Image: Getty

“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?

“I’m not sure Rafa wants to be the highest-paid endorser in the world. I don’t think he cares.

“Rafa is Rafa, he has done extremely well and I don’t think he needs anything else. Roger wanted to be marketed, so he appealed to different brands, audiences and consumer groups. And his management company’s done an amazing job."

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

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