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

Sources: Halep parting ways with adidas

Simona Halep is the No. 1 player on the WTA Tour.

She was voted Fan Favorite on Friday for the first time.

But as of right now, industry sources tell Tennis.Life the 26-year-old Romanian doesn’t have a clothing sponsor for 2018.

Unless something gets done at the very last minute, Halep and adidas are parting ways at what is approaching the peak of Halep’s career. She goes into 2018 one of the favorites to pull off a Grand Slam title for the first time.

Manager Virginia Ruzici responded to a request for comment from Tennis.Life about adidas not renewing Halep’s deal.

She didn’t confirm it. Nor did she claim it inaccurate.

“No comment” Ruzici wrote via e-mail, adding she would be in touch when she had something to add.

Halep joined the adidas family in April, 2014, premiering the clothes at a Fed Cup tie between Romania and Serbia.

Until then, she had been sponsored by Lacoste. But she left them mid-season although reportedly on good terms.

Heightened expectations

Tennis.Life was told that the biggest issue was bad timing, and a gap in the evaluations from both sides of Halep’s worth.

The Romanian’s representatives (mentor Ion Tiriac is believed to be involved on that side) had a number in mind, commensurate with their player’s new status as the top-ranked player in the world.

The adidas offer didn’t reflect the same reality. Nothing original there; that’s basically every negotiation, ever.

But when they came back without having found much greener grass elsewhere, the German company already had allocated its 2018 sponsorship budget. 

Halep is still training in adidas gear, although nothing she didn’t already have. Whether or not that’s significant will be revealed soon enough.

Where this leaves her for 2018 is unclear.

We’ll have to see what Halep shows up in when she arrives in Shenzhen in two weeks, to begin her campaign – or perhaps even in Thailand, where she’s scheduled for an exhibition Dec. 23-24. Halep has entered the doubles in Shenzhen with countrywoman Irina-Camelia Begu.

Who knows? The two sides might be able to work out some sort of last-minute, bonus-based deal for the season. All options are on the table at this point. The challenge, at this late stage, is that every other company has already spent its 2018 budget, too.

Halep’s wardrobe changes

However it turns out, it won’t be the first kit change for Halep during her career.

Here are a few different looks she’s had since 2010.

At Indian Wells in 2014, Halep was still wearing Lacoste. A month later, she debuted her her adidas garb during a Fed Cup tie. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)
At the Australian Open in 2010, Halep wore Fila. By Paris in the spring, she’d made a change. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)
At the 2010 French Open, Halep sported Lotto. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)
At the US Open in 2011, Halep wore adidas for the first time. She returned to them midway through 2014. But Tennis.Life has learned that won’t be the case going forward. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Mother-to-be Serena finds perfect sponsor

What’s one of the key things a mother-to-be needs – other than a supportive partner and family?

A great bed for those uncomfortable stretches the next few months. Not to mention the all-too-brief moments of respite once the baby is born.

We joke, but Serena Williams has signed the perfect endorsement to accompany her imminent life change. A Pampers or baby wipes deal would work, too. Perhaps that’s in the works.

She may have thrown them a curve with the surprise baby announcement, but Williams is the new face of Tempur-pedic’s “Sleep Is Power™” campaign.

The ads roll out this month in Canada and the U.S. They also will hit international markets including Great Britain, France, Australia and Germany.

Williams could have delivered her lines in the first one with a little more pep. The one with all the jumping up and down on the bed is pretty funny.

She is by the most famous of the athletes and “regular people” involved. Canadian professional surfer Catherine Bruhwhiler, Paralympian Michelle Salt and two-time Olympic bobsledder Neville Wright are also part of the campaign.

WTA Tour expands deal with Porsche

How’s this for a sequence of events?

*Tennis superstar Maria Sharapova is set to return to the WTA Tour after serving a 15-month doping suspension.

*The expiration of her suspension comes smack in the middle of a Premier-level WTA Tour event sponsored by Porsche. Which just happens to also be a one of Sharapova’s sponsors.

*The tournament, of course, is the first to offer Sharapova, who had no ranking, a wild card.

*A little problem arises. Technically, Sharapova shouldn’t be allowed to play in the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix because per the WTA rules, as of the start of the event, she was still under suspension and therefore not “available to play.”

*No problem at all! The WTA tweaks its rule slightly – or, if you like, clarifies them. Since it’s a 28-player draw with as many as five first-round matches being played as late as Wednesday, all systems were go!

*The opening ceremonies on Monday, which celebrated the tournament’s 40th anniversary, were a nice photo op for WTA Tour CEO Steve Simon and Porsche CEO Oliver Blume. They shook hands over plaques and whatnot, with a Porsche for background interest.

*Wednesday, the tickets for the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore went on sale, just as Sharapova made her return to the court after her long absence.

And the Porsche pièce de résistance…

*Sunday, before the Stuttgart women’s final, the WTA Tour announced – wait for it – a newly expanded sponsorship deal with Porsche.

All in the tennis family Monday night in Stuttgart. (Photo: Porsche Tennis)

The auto manufacturer already had been the “official automotive sponsor” of the Singapore event. Now, it will become the title sponsor for the “Road to Singapore,” which keeps track of the race for the eight singles and doubles qualifying spots at the year-end championship.

Porsche
This sweet ride goes to the No. 1 in the year-end race. (Photo: Porsche)

It will now be the “Porsche Race to Singapore.” Which actually is a natural fit.

The player who finishes No. 1 in the race will win a new Porsche 911 GTS Cabriolet (retail value: about $140,000 US).

She doesn’t even have to win the tournament.

Logo update scramble

The deal must have come together quickly; the WTA Tour hasn’t even yet had time to update its websites to replace the old (unsponsored) logos with the new sponsored ones.

No Porsche logo, and no clear favourites to win the Porsche Race to Singapore yet. (WTAFInals.com)

Meanwhile, the contenders in the new Porsche road/race didn’t exactly light it up at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix.

No. 1 Karolina Pliskova, seeded No. 2 in Stuttgart, went out in the quarterfinals to wild card Laura Siegemund (No. 73 in the race, but she’ll move up). Caroline Wozniacki didn’t play it at all. Johanna Konta lost in the second round to Anastasija Sevastova (No. 23). Serena Williams, we know. But she had never entered anyway.

Williams has played the Porsche event just twice, way back in 2007 and 2008. She also played it in 1999 when it was technically in Filderstadt. She has won just two matches there in her career.

Meanwhile, Sharapova will enter the Porsche road race Monday, at about No. 116.

She has plenty of time to jump into the top eight and qualify – especially given the inconsistent results from nearly all of the top players. But if she doesn’t, would it shock anyone if they somehow figured out a way to get her a wild card? Just a little rules tweak, or clarification. No big deal.

After all, it’s all in the (Porsche) family!