Allowing Roger Federer to quit Nike ‘an atrocity’ as former Nike tennis boss also lifts lid on RF merchandise coup

Roger Federer shoes Nike RF logo

Roger Federer was one of the faces of Nike for the best part of two decades, but in 2018 he stunned the endorsement world when he left the company for Uniqlo, much to the dismay of the former Nike tennis director Mike Nakajima.

American sports giant Nike snapped Federer up at the age of 13, before he had made his top-level debut although Nakajima and the rest of the tennis world knew he was always destined for greatness.

Nine years after he joined the stable, Federer won his first Grand Slam when he lifted the Wimbledon trophy in July 2003 and he would go on to win another 20 majors, becoming the first man to do so in tennis when he won the 2018 Australian Open.

In an extract of a new book The Roger Federer Effect – co-authored by Simon Cambers and Simon Graf – Nakajima explained: “He was up-and-coming, one of the top juniors. We brought him on and I realized right off the bat that he’s naturally charismatic and speaks well. And I noticed that he knew he was going to be great.”

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Federer of course became a household name in the world of tennis and his name was also synonymous with Nike for the best of his career, just like fellow tennis legend Serena Williams, golfing great Tiger Woods, basketball legends Michael Jordan and LeBron James, to name just a few.

“I’m a little biased,” Nakajima said. “But no one does marketing better than Nike. When you get the big Nike marketing machine behind you, that can blow that athlete through the stratosphere.

“Roger would have been famous on his own for sure. Even if he was playing for any other brand. But he became a lot bigger because of Nike’s marketing machine. The exposure that Nike can provide to an athlete is amazing. Obviously, you have to have success on the court, which Roger had. He won a few US Opens; that opened many people’s eyes.”

The Swiss maestro even got his own RF logo in 2006, which turned into a big win for Federer and Nike as many other tennis stars followed suit while his wife Mirka got involved in some of the apparel designs.

“Many top athletes started to get signature lines because that became a bargaining chip for companies to sign them. If you sign with us, we’ll create your own logo, and we will create a shoe that you’ll get royalties on. Which athletes will say, ‘No, I don’t want that?'” Nakajima explained.

He added: “We used to create a shirt for everybody in the world, US style, baggy, and then we realized that Europeans are so far ahead in fashion. Roger wanted it a lot more tailor-fitted. So we started creating the Roger Federer collection.

“That’s something Mirka was very involved with. When Roger wasn’t available, Mirka was. She told us, ‘This is what Roger likes,’ and we went by that. And we wanted to make sure that the tennis product we made, especially for Roger, became wearable as fashion. A nice polo with a little RF logo; people just went crazy over that. The RF hat was our number one seller at the US Open. A hat. It became one of the most iconic pieces we have ever created.”

But in 2018 Federer decided to leave Nike and he ended his 24-year association with the company by signing a $300 million contract with Japanese giant Uniqlo.

Nakajima, who left Nike in 2017, feels it was a massive mistake.

“That should never have happened. For us to let somebody like that go, it’s an atrocity,” he said. “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.”