Change Clothes (and Go)

Novak Djokovic outgrows his brand.
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Business guys on business trips.

Image via Uniqlo press release

Style is an essential component of solo sports. Without a team identity to subsume the individual's, expression of personal style becomes not only possible but significant. The practitioner's aesthetic becomes their brand, and as much a part of their legacy as their achievements. This is especial true of tennis, where both style of play and style of dress are statements of character. Tennis players, free of the constraints of a uniform or highly specialized performance gear, have a ton of freedom for sartorial expression.

A player's look means a little more in tennis, to the point that it almost becomes a part of their game. Nadal is respected for his record on clay, but loved for how he follows his forehand through, arcing it around his head like that's the only way to vent the momentum he's generated without his arm coming clean off. Federer's monogrammed cardigans are more than just a snobbish affectation—they're reminders of his pristine talent as much as his Swiss-rich, private-jet pedigree. Björn Borg's aesthetic was so well refined it became the basis for a Wes Anderson character.

A player's image can carry symbolic weight, too. If Agassi's shock of peroxide bleached hair defined the first chapter of his career, then the close-cropped look he welcomed the 1995 season with suggested rebirth. Sure enough, he would have his best year as a professional, beating archrival Sampras thrice and winning eight tournaments. For Agassi, the haircut was an outward expression of internal change, a repudiation of his "image is everything" persona and proof of renewed focus and vigor.

Novak Djokovic, the top-ranked player in the world, has recently undergone a little metamorphosis of his own. In late May, he announced that he was leaving clothing sponsor Sergio Tacchini to become a "Global Brand Ambassador" for Japanese retailer Uniqlo. I was puzzled by the news. It seemed to me there could hardly be a stranger fit for Djokovic than Uniqlo, whose trademark is minimal, unfussy design. For those unfamiliar with the brands in question and Djokovic's sponsorship history, some exposition will be of utility.

***

Sergio Tacchini was an Italian tennis player of little import. He was active in the 1950s and '60s, and never won anything more significant than the odd Davis Cup match. Tacchini, the story goes, was a bit of a peacock, and after a decade on the circuit had grown tired of traditional tennis whites. He wanted to play in vibrant colors and patterns and adventurous fabrics. So, in 1966, he founded a clothing company to produce gear to his specifications—this company would be his lasting contribution to the game. The designs were a hit, and the brand would rise to prominence, clothing luminaries like Nastăse, Connors, McEnroe, and Navratilova.

After two decades of high-profile prosperity, Tacchini fell on hard times. In 1994, they lost meal ticket Pete Sampras to Nike. Then, in the latter half of that decade, they endured a prolonged public break-up with Martina Hingis that got litigious when she claimed the company's defective shoes were to blame for the ankle injuries that derailed her career. The lawsuit dragged on through 2006, leaving Tacchini looking positively bush league. So when Djokovic, spurned by adidas in favor of Andy Murray, signed a lengthy sponsorship deal with Tacchini in 2009, it was considered a major coup. And it made sense for Novak, too. At the time, he was ranked fourth in the world. He was very good, but not elite. And he was a bit of a goofball, as well known for his celebrity impersonations as his play.

One might describe Tacchini's clothing as goofy, too. Another suitable descriptor would be "tacky as all hell." Still others: "coke dealer chic," "Vin Diesel film villain," and "Kenny Powers." Highlights of their Spring/Summer 2012 collection include flames, dragons, and bursts of color reminiscent of Macbook screensavers. If next year's flagship kit featured the likeness of Tony Montana, it would not be a significant departure. On most players, these garments would scan anywhere from bizarre to distasteful. But on Djokovic, they kind of worked! Here was an up-and-comer with a bombastic, outgoing personality, whose parents got into mid-match arguments with Roger Federer. The look made sense, and so did the timing—Tacchini signed Pete Sampras a few years before he established himself at the top of the food chain, and they stood a reasonable chance of repeating this success with Djokovic.  

Then 2011 happened. Djokovic went berserk, capturing three Grand Slams and five Masters on his way to a 70-6 record and one of the greatest single seasons in the history of the sport. Suddenly, Tacchini had a problem. Djokovic's deal was laden with performance bonuses—likely the reason he accepted it. Tacchini expected Novak might one day be the number one seed, but they didn't expect it to happen so fast. After all, he had won only one Grand Slam at the time the deal was signed. Details are somewhat sketchy, but it's believed that Tacchini couldn't keep up with bonus payments and Djokovic was released from the deal. Shortly thereafter, he would enter into a five-year partnership with Uniqlo.  

Uniqlo (short for "unique clothing") is a titan of Japanese fashion. Founded in 1984, it is a wholly owned subsidiary of Fast Retailing, one of Japan's most profitable companies. Uniqlo is known for offering basic garments—pique polos, cashmere sweaters, jeans, etc.— in every imaginable color and at a quality that outperforms their price point. The Uniqlo brand is utterly ubiquitous in Japan and its global profile is rising steadily with surging profits to match. Unlike Tacchini, Uniqlo is on the up-and-up. While it still lags behind the top three in its field—Zara parent company Inditex, H&M, and Gap—its sales grew 22% in 2009. It dominates the Korean marketplace as well as Japan's, and has aggressive expansion plans. It already has stores scattered Europe, three locations in New York City, and plans to open 200-300 new stores per year until 2020.

The Djokovic-Uniqlo partnership was announced less than a week before the French Open. When Novak hit the court at Roland Garros, he was clad in navy and white with contrast piping. For Djokovic, it was an uncommonly subdued look, broken up only the Uniqlo box logo peppering the gear. On first glance, it was a little strange. Surely Tacchini's flashier designs were better suited to the Serb's playful, impetuous personality. Mythical creature motifs and ultra-shiny fabrics seem so much more... Djokovic-y. But when you reflect on how far Djokovic has come since 2009, it kind of makes sense. Reading way too much into it—the rhetorical engine driving any good think piece on the deeper meaning of tennis fashion—Novak's new look indicates he's settling into himself and growing into the role of number one. Maybe the old Novak needed dragons on his lats, but the new one most certainly does not. He is serious. He is focused. A Tacchini spokesman claimed that Djokovic had "outgrown the brand," and he couldn't have been more on the money. This rebranding is the completion of a metamorphosis that started in 2011. He is clearly an upgraded version of the player he was in 2009—why shouldn't he look like one?

For the tennis aesthete, Djokovic is terribly frustrating. You loved cheering for Federer because he not only was the best, he looked like the best. Now Djokovic beats the best. Not easily, but consistently. Since the beginning of the 2011 season, he's 6-1 against Federer and 7-3 against Nadal. The stylistic differences between the Big Three are stark, and have been covered in great detail, more lovingly and gracefully than I could hope to. Basically: Federer travels to unexplored tennis dimensions on each point, Rafa plays like a Homeric wargod whose sweetheart is tied to railroad tracks somewhere near the stadium, and Djokovic kind of just breaks dudes down, slowly but inevitably. He's an all-court automaton, equally potent on offense and defense. He's strong on the serve. He is superb under pressure, playing with fearless confidence, pummeling opponents with relentless groundstrokes and an evil backhand. These are not new ideas, but they are true ones. Djokovic plays with a perfunctory lack of flair, but succeeds more frequently than any of his peers. Except for everything, there's nothing much to love about his game.

Let me throw another labored comparison onto the pile of Djokovic-related simile-mush: Novak's game is one of corporate dominance, which makes it impressive but not inspiring. Next time you're in a Starbucks, take a moment to think about all the actions aligning to make your coffee and croissant possible. It's very impressive that each of its nearly 20,000 locations are able to operate efficiently and largely without incident. But is it inspiring? Only to sociopaths. Djokovic's game has achieved this sort of economy of scale. By controlling the court so completely he's discovered new efficiencies that allow him to continuously outperform and outlast his opponents. He's found better angles and better lines, the marginal gains that made performances like his defeat of Nadal in the 2012 Australian Open possible.

Taken this way, the deal with Uniqlo makes even more sense. Enter a Uniqlo and you're greeted by rows upon rows of pristinely folded, color-coded clothing. Remove a shirt from a pile, and in not much longer than it would take you to tie your shoe it will be reintegrated into the stack. In years of shopping at Uniqlos on two continents, I have never once found them to be out of a size or color in a garment I wanted. It's consistent. It's relentless. It's kind of like Djokovic. And while those attributes make for a hellish tennis opponent, they also create a remarkably satisfying shopping experience. They make both Djokovic and Uniqlo very good at what they do.

So, Djokovic is arguably the most complete player in tennis. Uniqlo could lay similar claim to the world of specialized clothiers. But neither are indisputably so, and here's where Novak's interests and Uniqlo's dovetail. They want no disputes. Djokovic may be the number one seed right now, but he's not yet in the conversation for G.O.A.T. He'll need to sustain his dominance, continue beating Federer and Nadal, and keep racking up Grand Slams. Uniqlo has a long way to go, too. Their margins are considerably slimmer than their major competitors. Right now, Uniqlo is exactly where Djokovic was in 2009—fourth in the world, but steadily gaining ground. Neither Novak nor Uniqlo are quite where they want to be yet, but they are getting closer. Give them time.


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