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Is Roger Federer Being Unfaithful?

No, we don’t mean to question whether he is being unfaithful to Mirka or their four children. We have enough of those rumors with the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and some of his predecessors. What we are questioning is Roger Federer’s sartorial choices. For those who haven’t noticed – being too busy watching the World Cup and basking in Swiss football’s moments of glory – Roger Federer is no longer being outfitted by Nike.

This change of haberdasher, while not front-page news competing with President Trump’s upcoming visit to England and NATO, summit with President Putin in Helsinki or the battle to name the Supreme Court replacement for Justice Anthony Kennedy, warrants some comment about loyalty and the current state of the world. (It is, after all, summer vacation.)

For the first time since the beginning of his professional career in 1994, Roger Federer will no longer be playing in Nike clothing. The 20-time Grand Slam winner appeared for his first-round match at Wimbledon on July 2 with Uniqlo (stands for unique clothing) labels instead of his traditional Nike swoosh. The Japanese designer, manufacturer and retailer of casual clothing outbid Nike to the rumored compensation of 300 million dollars over ten years. Federer, according to Nike, was not worth a lifetime investment since the thirty-six-year-old is approaching the twilight of his career. The Nike deal expired on March 1, and the new arrangement easily surpasses Federer’s career prize money of $116 million earned over 20 years.

For truly loyal Swiss fans, rest assured that Roger’s Rolex contract is still valid. And we expect that if he wins his ninth Wimbledon crown and twenty-first Grand Slam on July 15, he will quickly head to his bag to put on his Rolex for the photographers. (A favorite sportswriter on mine used to time the United States national anthem during the Super Bowl and take bets. I prefer the time between the tournament’s winner’s handshake with the umpire and the putting on the sponsor’s watch. Any bets?) Federer’s special RF logo is still owned by Nike and we assume that the Japanese company will find some way to acquire this as well.

While one should not quibble about athletes’ choices of sponsors, nor be jealous at the fabulous sums of money the top ones are making, it is fair to question notions of loyalty in the current era. Players change teams all the time. Lebron James, the current premier basketball player, has just left the Cleveland Cavaliers – his hometown team – for the Beverly Hills of Los Angeles. He could have made $207 million over five years with Cleveland while he signed for $137 million over four years with the Los Angeles Lakers. (Not easy to call that a salary cut.) But then again, James has left Cleveland once before to head to South Beach and the Miami Heat.

In a transactional world where interest trumps values, it should not be surprising that Roger has shifted logos. The Japanese offered him a deal that should go well beyond his playing days. Nike was obviously not interested in signing him to a lifetime contract. Federer, a tennis star, was deemed limited in time in appeal, just as a perfume company would not sign a lifetime contract with an aging Hollywood star to be its symbol. Business deals, like glory, can be very fleeting.

Roger Federer represents a special niche for the Swiss. He is in many ways their best ambassador. Elegant, polite, cosmopolitan, multilingual, articulate, devoted husband and family man, he is the best-known Swiss around the world. He stands for those values Switzerland tries to project.

How will his change of sponsors affect that image? The change represents a rupture from what we have become accustomed to in seeing Federer as a fashion leader. As a perceptive journalist noted about Federer’s previous outfits; “Nike…has created memorable looks, especially at Wimbledon, that have cemented his status as a fashion plate. There was the gold-accented blazer in 2007, the cardigan in 2008, and the vest and military jacket in 2009. There were the tuxedo shorts at the United States Open…”  If Novak Djokovic changes from Uniqlo to Lacoste, we are not surprised. He does not have Roger’s fashion reputation.

If and when Federer stops winning, it will be a shock for Switzerland and his fans throughout the world. If the Swiss watch leader Rolex decides to stop his contract, like Nike, we will know that transactional values have taken over even in Switzerland. And we will know that Rolex, like the American giant Nike, is just a business. And if Roger changes watch contracts (Rolex to Swatch?), we will know that he, like other players, is up for sale.

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