Roger Federer is back, and in the news

After two and a half months away from the match court, Roger Federer is back.

He’ll hit the grass in Stuttgart for his first match on Wednesday, against veteran lefty Mischa Zverev, a familiar opponent on grass.

Of the five times they’ve met (Federer has yet to lose a set), three have been on grass. Two of them came a year ago, in Halle and in the third round at Wimbledon.

But before the 36-year-old even serves, he has already made plenty of news.

The most amusing part was the officially-scheduled Federer practice on Sunday on the centre court in Stuttgart.

A telling sign of just exactly how much a player of Federer’s pedigree means to a 250-level tournament like Stuttgart was that his hit was announced for 5 p.m. on the official order of play.

That was – of course – right in the middle of the French Open in Paris between Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem.

Federer seemed rather in good spirits for the practice with Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber.

But the focus was partly on what Federer was wearing.

The answer: Nike, of course. At least for now.

Rumours of a move to Uniqlo

Fact: Federer’s 10-year deal with Nike expired March 1.

And, as with any contract renewal negotiation, discussions would have begun long before that expiry date.

But there is no deal yet.

And, in the interim, a trial balloon was floated that the Japanese company Uniqlo has weighed in with a massive offer.

It appears that Vince Martucci at Sportsenators.it was the first in the non-Asian markets to put this out there.

Uniqlo, which sponsors Japanese superstar Kei Nishikori (and just re-upped with him in a $50 million deal that takes both sides through the market-crucial Tokyo Olympics in 2020), freed up some cash after Novak Djokovic went to Lacoste.

But … $30 million US a year, for 10 years? That would take it well beyond Federer’s playing days, and well into his retirement. Well, one would assume, anyway.

Federer acknowledged that the Nike deal (which was a reported $100 million for 10 years, and probably undervalued in the market by this point, given Federer’s resurgence) had expired, and that he’d heard the rumours.

“These rumors are known to me. (Not a) rumor is that my Nike contract expired in March. There are negotiations going on, there’s nothing more to say. You are certainly the first to know when something is going in that direction,” Federer said during a press conference in Stuttgart Monday.

A lot of outlets are reporting this as a done deal. It’s unlikely that’s true. But the gloves are off.

Looking for lifetime deal?

It’s hard to imagine that Team Federer would want to leave Nike. It’s an association that has been ongoing since 1994. And Federer’s RF Nike logo is iconic.

And it’s hard to imagine that Nike would want to leave Federer. The Swiss star is, by a wide margin, the player who moves the most tennis merchandise for them – for any tennis manufacturer, actually.

But at what price?

That obviously is the rub.

If it has taken this long to come to an agreement, there are two factors to be looked at. The first is the actual dollars. The second is the length of the agreement, with Federer’s playing days counting down.

From the Team Federer perspective, you could speculate realistically that they’re looking for a lifetime deal. He has become, through the years, a sporting icon who transcends tennis.

But the Nike business revolves around the shoe.

Basketball superstar LeBron James signed a lifetime deal with the company in 2015. He’s 33..

Soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, who also is 33, signed a lifetime deal of his own in November, 2016.

Nike icon Michael Jordan hangs with Federer’s wife Mirka at the 2014 US Open.

Michael Jordan, who has been retired 15 years, is estimated to have earned $473 million from his Nike association since 1993. And only the first 10 years of that came while he was an active player.

Federer’s name recognition is up there with those athletes, on some levels. But the sport he plays does not bring Nike nearly the same level of revenue. And so a “lifetime” deal wouldn’t come with nearly the same number of dollars.

The Agassi comparison

In July, 2005, lifelong Nike wearer Andre Agassi switched to adidas, which had long sponsored his wife, Steffi Graf.

For a long period of time, the American was as identified with the “swoosh” as Federer is now. Maybe even more – on the North American scene, especially. And the association revolutionized the marketing of tennis.

It seemed unthinkable at the time that he would leave. But Agassi spun it well; the deal with adidas had huge philanthropic element, a financial commitment to his foundation.

But in 2013, Agassi returned to Nike, emphasizing that the association would help promote the company’s “Designed to Move” campaign.

JuJu

Money, or image?

Nike is Nike, the standard-bearer for sports merchandise.

Will Federer leave Nike and take the Uniqlo money? It feels like there are still a few chapters to be written in this story.

Uniqlo, which is rapidly expanding (although doesn’t yet have stores in Federer’s homeland), is far more of a sportswear company than a tennis concern.

Its clothes are reasonably priced and fairly bland, sort of on par with The Gap and Old Navy in the U.S.

The company has repeatedly tried to crack the American market, but seems to not yet have found the winning formula to compete with the other chain stores in its market segment.

Would Federer be a difference-maker worldwide? Certainly they seem to think so, especially if Federer plays on and competes in the 2020 Olympics on Uniqlo’s home turf.

But what we really don’t know is how legitimate those alleged numbers are.

Make no mistake, the news of this sudden  “competitor” for Federer’s allegiance was strategically leaked.

And those numbers are perhaps an inadvertent clue into what Team Federer believes its man is worth to Nike.

Perhaps, with negotiations not progressing after all these months, it was time to try to put pressure on Nike. The rumours are undoubtedly a move to put Federer in what’s always the best negotiation position: creating a bidding war and letting Nike know that what they’ve come up with so far isn’t nearly enough. And that if they don’t up the ante, someone else is ready to take it on.

Public-relations repercussions

The delicate balance here is the potential harm it could do to Federer’s “peRFect” image.

Forbes’ estimate of Federer’s career earnings (and this was a few years ago) came in at about $600 million.

So – and this is an understatement – the Swiss star has earned more than he and generations of his descendants could ever possibly spend.

Federer has a number of high-profile sponsorship deals, most recently a $40 million contract with the pasta-maker Barilla. The company’s Federer commercials regularly ran on French television during the French Open, despite his absence.

And early in the event, he was even in town for a Moët champagne event celebrating his 20 years on tour. A special bottle priced at $19,998 was announced, with the profits going to his foundation.

The Nike-Federer relationship is firmly anchored. And a lot fans can’t imagine one without the other.

If it’s perceived that Federer left merely because of big stacks of money, the average fan making a working salary will resent it.

So if it happens, that’s going to require some deft public relations.

There’s always a “respect” component to these things – a “scoreboard” where success is measured not so much by the actual dollars (especially when the athlete concerned is beyond worrying about the dollars). It’s about “did he get what he’s worth, relative to other athletes at his level?”

In the end, it’s a chase for one dollar more than the other guy got. That means a “win”.

The 2018 season was always going to be a fascinating one, from this perspective. Because Rafael Nadal’s long-term deal with Nike also is expiring this year.

So what happens with Federer is something Team Nadal no doubt will keep a close eye on.

But back to tennis …

Federer

Nike is ready … Is Serena ready for Roland Garros?

PARIS – As little as Serena Williams has played this year – for the last year and a half, with the birth of Olympia – there’s no way to know what her level will be.

But after she opted not to play either of the big WTA Tour clay warmups in Madrid and Rome, it’s an even bigger question mark.

It’s one of the secrets that will be revealed as the French Open gets under way on Sunday.

Williams’ sister Venus does play on Sunday, against China’s Qiang Wang. But Serena, in the top half of the women’s singles draw, won’t play until Tuesday or Wednesday.

During a practice on Suzanne Lenglen Friday, Williams was definitely not pushing herself. Similar to her sister’s practice the previous day, she really was hardly moving at all.

The sound of the ball off the racket, of course, sounds the same as ever.

Here’s what it looked like.

Nike ready to represent

There are promo posters celebrating Williams’ return to Paris all over the city.

“The Queen is Back” – they harken.

Nike

Is she? We’ll soon find out.

Williams’ first-round opponent is Kristyna Pliskova, the lefty twin sister of top-five player Karolina Pliskova.

Pliskova’s ranking has been as high as No. 35 (that was last July). It’s currently at No. 70. But she has some good wins during the clay-court swing.

She qualified and made the third round in Madrid. And in Charleston, on the American Har-Tru in early April, she defeated Petra Kvitova, Katerina Siniakova and Elena Vesnina on her way to the quarterfinals.

Can it be Serena time?

Through all of Williams’ notable absences from the Tour during her long career, you always got the sense that when she did return, she could turn on the switch and become Serena again.

There was a lot of hard work and sweat behind the scenes to make that happen, of course. But her base level is so high, she can win a lot of matches even as she tries get back to her top level.

Everyone remembers that 2007 Australian Open when Williams came in visibly out of shape. And yet, by the end of the fortnight, not only was she far more match fit – she was holding up the trophy.

Williams was unseeded, ranked No. 81 when she went Down Under. On her way to a 6-1, 6-2 win in the final over world No. 2 Maria Sharapova, she defeated several top-20 players: No. 6 Nadia Petrova, No. 11 Jelena  Jankovic, No. 12 Nicole Vaidisova and No. 17 Shahar Pe’er.

She was 25 then, though. And she hadn’t had a baby and a really tough post-birth period with complications.

At 36, it’s a significantly bigger challenge.

Not match tough – but is she healthy?

There were photos of her at the Mouratoglou Academy a few weeks ago in which she had some significant tape on her knee. She was fiddling with her right leg during this Friday practice. 

But it was hard to tell if something was bothering her, because she didn’t run much.

We’ll find out soon enough just how up she is for it.

In the meantime, she’s got a bitchin’ pair of shoes to wear.

Nike

Not only that – she’s got a guy. Among his duties are collecting said blingy shoes, knocking off the terre battue – and storing them neatly in a plastic bag.

Nike

That is good living.

Nike honors Serena for Int’l Women’s Day

As Serena Williams returns to action at the BNP Paribas Open, Nike put together an inspiration little 30 seconds featuring the former No. 1 and new mom.

Williams has had an eventful six months. Becoming a mother, getting married, upping her game on raising awareness for some important causes and … getting back to tennis.

Now unranked, Williams competed Monday night in the Tie Break Tens event in New York, and has a charity event in the area Tuesday.

She drew Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan in the first round of the women’s singles.

Nike is dropping quality shoes

Maria Sharapova’s new signature Nike shoe is out.

The original 1972 Nike Cortez is now available in three dozen models. The blurb for Sharapova’s bespoke design says it exudes “the peacefulness that Sharapova soaks in during her early morning walks on her way to practice.”

Meanwhile, Kei Nishikori got a special delivery: a pair of the Air Jordan model worn by Justin Timberlake at the Super Bowl.

The shoes went on sale online right after the halftime show, selling out in under five minutes. But they saved a pair for Nishikori. 

Nike’s sneaker game is strong at the moment.

Canadian kids – and a Genie lookalike

Three promising young Canadian players – 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov, 17-year-old Félix Auger-Aliassime and 20-year-old Françoise Abanda – all Nike endorsers – got together for a photo shoot this week in New York.

At first glance you’re thinking, “Hey, that’s another Canadian in there with them: Genie Bouchard.”

And then you realize it’s not Bouchard at all; it’s Hungary’s Fanni Stollar, 18, another up-and-comer. 

But you have to have to look twice.

While Bouchard can’t be considered an up-and-comer any more, the whole concept is a bit … weird.

Tangled up in (Nike Paramount) Blue

In a few weeks, when Wimbledon rolls around, the end of the blue period will be upon us.

But until then, we are not yet done with the Nike Blue – Paramount Blue, officially – that was ubiquitous during the clay-court season.

It was a step above the yellow and green neons that fought a valiant battle for supremacy on the Nike players during the Indian Wells-Miami swing a couple of months ago.

But the French Open was absolutely overrun with it.

Here is just a small sample of the protagonists. They ranged from the juniors, to the pro players – even to legends like John McEnroe and Conchita Martiez.

There were two varieties for the women. The basic kit matched up with the shorts worn by the men.

Some of the women were chosen to wear the non-patterned Maria Sharapova kit : Russian juniors Olesya Pervushina and Anastasia Potapova, American Anastasia Anisimova, Croat Alja Tomljanovic and Canadian Françoise Abanda.

But the vestiges from the battling neons era remained.

Where are the blue socks?

It was all about the shoes and socks.

Nike

We asked several Nike players why the heck the shoes didn’t match. None of them had an answer; they just wear what they’ve given, or paid to wear.

But one did point this out: “The socks don’t match, either!”

There was a little of the green neon around the trim of the shirts – and of course the Swoosh. But the sock/shoe wardrobe malfunction was definitely out-of-the-box thinking.

They should all have been wearing Nadal’s shoes. And it would have been perfect.

Nike

As well, they are also 10 French Open, winning championship shoes. They could even have kept the personalized “Rafa” and No. 9 on the backs of them – just for good karma.

The only outfit that matched the shoes was the black version of the kit, worn by Genie Bouchard.

Nike

On a related note, the two junior girls’ finalists and all four girls in the doubles final were tangled up in Nike Paramount blue. So you can see where the future is headed once they all graduate to the pro tour.

Shoeless Nadal will go to video to solve mystery

KEY BISCAYNE – Rafael Nadal doesn’t know how it happened.

But after coming right out of his shoe as he ran in vain for a brilliant Fabio Fognini drop shot during their Miami Open semi-final Friday, he said during the Spanish part of his post-match media conference that he’s going to have to go video replay to determined what happened.

Always glad to help:

The Mallorcan seemed perplexed, and maybe a little embarrassed about the incident, which Fognini greatly enjoyed and everyone else got a big kick out of. But in discussing it afterwards, Nadal didn’t really see the humour; it cost him a point, and therefore is a problem that must be handled.

Fognini has a pretty good laugh after levitating Nadal right out of his right show during their semi-final match Friday in Miami. (TennisTV.com screenshot)

Nadal rebutted the myth that his shoes were a size or two smaller than his feet (which is why his feet always looked stuff into them) years ago, saying that he wore a size 10 1/2 shoe, but his Nikes were custom-made and officially size 10. But that was the extent of it.

After this little incident (which he said also happened on the practice court during this American hard-court swing), he might want to re-evaluate.