July 11, 2020

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Nike pares down, but players find new homes

BRISBANE, Australia – It appears tennis clothing giant Nike did a serious culling of the herd at the end of the 2019 season.

And the players affected are mostly in the women’s game.

But the good news is that most of them have bounced back with other brands.

And in some cases, it might turn out to be a positive move.

“Nike’s been the only brand I’ve known, for 14 years. It was a big decision. But my contract was expiring and K-Swiss, really wanted to get into tennis again after being in and out for a few years,” Aussie Ajla Tomljanovic said.

Tomljanovic, currently ranked No. 54, reached a career high of No. 39 back in April as she made a successful return from shoulder surgery.

Her new deal with K-Swiss will officially be announced Monday.

The face of a new brand

Tomljanovic has already met their entire team. And they’re in the process of creating a line for which the attractive 26-year-old will be the standard-bearer.

“My first tennis dress was K-Swiss when I was nine, so it’s kind of funny,” Tomljanovic. “It’s almost full circle.”

The Aussie is in good company. Other players more highly ranked also found themselves at the end of their contracts, and looking for another option.

Caroline Garcia of France, the No. 2 French player currently ranked No. 48 – but who was as high as No. 4 a little over a year ago – was another casualty.

Maria Sakkari, ranked No. 23 in the world, was another.

Tomljanovic
Former Nike athletes Sakkari and Tomljanovic practice together in Brisbane Sunday. Sakkari is now with adidas; Tomljanovic will be the new face of K-Swiss. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

So was promising Polish player Iga Świątek, the 2018 junior Wimbledon champion who has already reached the top 50 and is still just 18.

Who else? Borna Coric, 23, who has been in or near the top 20 for the last year and a half.

There are other, lesser-known players who also haven’t been wearing Nike to start this season.

Who’s next? From what we understand, Genie Bouchard may also be a free agent when her contract expires March 1. And there might be a few more.

As it is, the Canadian former No. 5 has not earned any income from her Nike clothing deal for nearly two years. She’s in the non-guaranteed phase of her deal (which is fairly standard). And the drop in her fortunes means she has been at what’s called “100 per cent reduction” – i.e., not qualifying for any bonuses based on ranking levels.

Asics picks up three

Tomljanovic
Coric’s Asics debut in the ATP Cup was a success.

Asics has picked up Garcia, Świątek and Coric.

Sakkari’s new deal with adidas means the company now has both rising Greek stars – Sakkari and top-10 men’s player Stefanos Tsitsipas.

And that’s something that could mean significantly more exposure for her than she would get as a lower-priority player with Nike.

For Tomljanovic, a Croatian who has lived in Florida for years and who finally became eligible to represent Australia in international play at last November’s Fed Cup final, it’s a positive step.

She’s at a point in her career where she feels ready for, and looks forward to, the challenge of being the face of a brand.

“I was really happy the way I looked in Nike. But then I sometimes looked around and saw a lot of girls wearing the same thing. To be different (i.e., get a bespoke line, as Serena Williams or Rafael Nadal do) in Nike, you have to be winning Slams. And obviously I’m not doing that right now. But with K-Swiss, I’ll be the face of it, and that means something to me as well. It was just a point in my career where I was also ready to do that,” Tomljanovic said.

“It was a change I didn’t know how to feel about. But now that I’m in it, I’m pretty happy,” she added.

It should be noted that of all the Nike female players, Tomljanovic was always dressed the most impeccably in the brand’s practice and workout wear off the court. Without fail. And she looked spectacular in it, although she looks spectacular in just about everything.

The bulk of the spoils to a very few

Tomljanovic
Sakkari already has the adidas practice gear happening in Brisbane. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

The tendency in tennis, and with Nike in particular, has always been to concentrate the big money at the very top.

During recent years when they had Nadal, Roger Federer, Williams and Maria Sharapova, those four got a huge percentage of the overall tennis sponsorship budget.

But the reality is that even Federer – as many “RF” hats as you see around tournament sites – during his peak Nike years moved relatively little merchandise.

We’re comparing this to the bigger team sports, obviously.

There’s a reason Michael Jordan has a lucrative, lifetime deal and Nike felt Federer – for all of his accomplishments – did not justify that same type of up-front investment.

At the same time, Nike is the gold standard in tennis. Being a “Nike athlete” has significance. And they also pay better than anyone else, if they want you – and if maximize all your bonuses.

Standing out on your own

Tomljanovic
Garcia debuted her new Asics kit Monday in Auckland, in her first-round match against Taylor Townsend. (WTAtv.com)

It’s possible that Tomljanovic and perhaps some others could have stayed with Nike on purely bonus-based contracts.

But those types of deals put outsized pressure on performance in a business that’s already overloaded with pressure from all sides.

And the reality is that their career window to maximize earnings is relatively short. So there’s a lot to balance.

“Nike has a lot of great athletes, at the top it’s heavy. They’ve been really good to me in my whole career, and I was really happy with them, but I think it was just point in my career to take another direction, and I found a really nice one,” Tomljanovic said.

“You always look at what’s around when your contract is expiring, and if nothing really clicks, you don’t make a change. But the timing was that K-Swiss was interested, so it just kind of happened.”

Osaka, Anisimova a priority

Last spring, Nike signed Naomi Osaka away from Adidas. Osaka obviously is a huge entry into the lucrative Asian market.

Nike also recently signed 18-year-old American teenager Amanda Anisimova to a lucrative, long-term deal.

To put a female twist on an old expression, to pay Petra, sometimes you have to rob Paula.

Tomljanovic, seen here at the Rogers Cup in 2010, spent 14 years as a Nike athlete. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

But it’s long been obvious that unless you’re one of the very top players, the off-court income streams are hard to come by. Agents have to find creative and original ways to get their players more money.

Tomljanovic has been around long enough to know what to expect when you finish the season ranked No. 50, and your deal is expiring.

“You also kind of know that they’re not going to be fighting over me. I’m realistic enough to know how the business goes. But you also know your value, what you can get out of a different brand,” she said.

“I guess in a way, I just wanted to get my value, be seen out there, be the only one who wears something.”

The turnover in the off-season means that there will be a lot of promotional material on the WTA website that will be well out of date.

Garcia (seen here at the 2011 US Open junior girls’ final), also spent her entire career with Nike – until 2020. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

They made a quick adjustment with Osaka when the Nike deal was announced last April; her photo doesn’t stylistically match the other official WTA promotional material. But at least she’s got the swoosh.

But we’re likely to see Świątek, Garcia, Sakkari and Tomljanovic in their old Nike gear for a while – off court, if not on court.

Tomljanovic had nothing but praise for the company as they parted ways.

“I’ve had injuries and setbacks, and Nike has been amazing with me, they stuck with me, and believed in me a lot. We ended on really good terms. We’re still friends, which doesn’t happen most of the time,” she said.

“It’s probably my best breakup so far,” she added, laughing.