Nike’s longtime former tennis director has slammed the company’s split with tennis legend Roger Federer.
Federer left Nike in 2018 after 24 years, signing a $300 million 10-year contract with Japanese clothing chain Uniqlo.
It was a number Nike felt was beyond its reach for a tennis player, but now Mike Nakajima — who worked with stars like John McEnroe, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi before Nike signed Federer as a 13-year-old — has broken ranks.
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“That should never have happened. For us to let somebody like that go, it’s an atrocity,” Nakajima told the authors of the book The Roger Federer Effect.
“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 left Nike a year before Federer to start his own business but remains connected to Nike as his wife, brother and one of his sons work there, per CNN.
He said Nike already had the model on how to approach Federer’s non-playing years because of what they’d done with basketball legend Jordan. And he didn’t blame the 20-time grand slam winner for accepting Uniqlo’s offer.
“Roger is going to be fine. So I’m happy for him. I probably would have done the same thing if I were in the same boat. Who might have turned down a $30 million a year contract? But it should have never gotten to that point,” Nakajima said.
“Nike is still selling millions and millions of pairs of Jordans. When’s the last time Michael played? It’s been many, many years. They could have done the same thing for Roger. For years to come, they could have created shoes with an RF logo.”
In the book, Nakajima describes how Nike struck lightning in a bottle with the young Swiss player.
“He was up-and-coming, one of the top juniors,” Nakajima said. “We brought him on and I realised right off the bat that he’s naturally charismatic and speaks well. And I noticed that he knew he was going to be great.”
Despite that inner confidence, Federer became one of the most universally admired athletes in history.
“People love to hate successful people. They’re jealous. But it always astounds me that no one ever says anything negative about Roger,” Nakajima said.
“Because of the way he portrays himself to others, he’s loved by others. He treats others respectfully, he knows the audience and can adjust his conversation based on his audience. He knows how to talk to grown-ups and kids.
“I’ve had an event where he was supposed to be there an hour and was there for four hours. Four hours! Who does that? He knows that these are the people that watch him play. These are the people that are giving him sponsorships. He gets it.”
As for the other members of tennis’ big three — Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal — Nakajima says they’ll never match Federer’s popularity.
“(Djokovic) could well be the most successful tennis player ever. But there’s always a dark cloud around him,” he said.
“It’s like he brings it upon himself. He hits the lineswoman at the US Open 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?”
Nakajima said any difference between Federer and Nadal was largely down to intent.
“I’m not sure Rafa wants to be the highest-paid endorser in the world. I don’t think he cares,” he said.
“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.”