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last updated July 16, 2015 (originally published February 2, 2009)
Roger Federer stunned the tennis world by crying uncontrollably at the
podium of the 2009 Australian Open following his defeat at the hands
of World Number 1 Rafael Nadal. The history books will record that the
defeat was not one-sided: Federer gave Nadal all he could handle over
a marathon match lasting 4 hours and 23 minutes. The final score was
a tight, see-saw, losing a memorable 5 set match, 7-6,3-6, 7-5, 3-6,
But it is likely that none of the crowd of 20,000 who crammed into Rod
Laver Stadium nor many of the estimated 60 million who watched the
match around the world will remember the match for its final score. For
none of the 4 hours, 23 minutes of tennis action will be forever
overshadowed by the signature minutes of the 2009 Australian Open---
the 5 minutes when time stood still, and the packed stadium fell silent,
watching the searing image of a broken Roger Fereder, crying.
Unable to finish his speech accepting the runner's up prize, Federer
struggled at the podium. A male voice called out into the emptimess "I
love you Federer!". Federer gazed out into the emptiness with a look
that seemed to say" not exactly what I need, right now", tried a smile,
took a deep breath and started to continue.
But then came that crucial moment. You know it. That moment when
you know that the ball has gone past the tipping point in it slides down
the hill and nothing, nothing can stop its roll. The tears started to flow.
And flow. A torrent of tears unlike anything the world of men's tennis
had ever witnessed. A wall of tears, a sheet of rain, streaming down
his cheeks from reddened eyes. "It's killing me", Federer managed to
say as he drowned in the fountain of tears.
The spectacle was reflected back in the gestures of Federer's
companion who is now his wife, Mirka Vavrinec who, watching in
horror, could only put her hand over her mouth, like a helpless mother,
too far away to help, watching in slow motion as her toddler child
crossed the tracks of an oncoming train.
After what seemed like an eternity, the tournament director entered the
breach, looking somewhat embarrassed. "Let's give Roger a moment to
settle down", he said, before passing the microphone to the steady, if
somewhat inarticulate safety of Rafael Nadal.
Rafa delivered his speech, a short tribute, graciously acknowledged
Federer, apologized to him for the drubbing ---which of course made it
worse--- thanks to the crowd, the ball boys and out. He even put a
sportsman-like arm around Federer, who stood there sobbing openly,
Perhaps the only one in the world crying louder than Federer at that
moment was the executive at Nike who had signed a $130 million 10
year endorsement deal with him just months before. For $13 million a
year, Federer wears Nike tennis wear exclusively. In fact, he resembles
a Nike billboard at times-- from the big Nike swoosh on his headband,
to the sleek Nike shirts, cut sophisticated and classic and timeless, to
the custom Nike sneakers. Nike in the morning, Nike in the evening,
Nike at suppertime, to paraphrase an old country tune.
For his part, Federer has delivered to Nike the pre-eiminent male model
of athletic supremacy, an athlete of almost unimaginable grace and
skills, lighting quick reflexes, perfect balance, a Barishnikov in shorts.
Until now. Sure, there has been some decline in his game. Federer is
27 and will turn 28 in August. That's almost middle age fro tennis
players who traditionally peak around age 23. This past year, he won
only 1 Grand Slam, the US Open, a feat most tennis players would give
their right arms for, but way beneath the majestic standards of
Federer, whose 13 Grand Slam wins pus him only 1 behind Pete
Sampras's all-time mark of 14. All that was somewhat expected.
But not this. Not this fall off a cliff. Not this public spectacle of tears.
Not this, the unmanly display of a great champion crumbling in tears.
How much did Federer lose in endorsements? Maybe not a cent. Nike
has never stated how much of the $13 million is guaranteed. But most
industry insiders think that the lion's share is guaranteed. But Nike lost
plenty. Nike is in the business of selling shoes and shirts. Nike sells
images. Nike sells dreams. Boys and men buy emulation and fantasy,
not latex and cotton. That's what makes Federer's meltdown both
incalculable and yet absolutely certain to be massive. With that one
display, he las lost all --100% --of his aura of mastery, of strength, of
dominance, of command.
Talk about a down market. Here was Federer's image before 2008.
Dominant. Suave. Commanding. Superlative. Best in class. Best in
history. Perfect. Genius. Think James Bond with a tennis racket.
What is Federer's "brand" today? A broken man, a vanquished hero, a
fallen and tearful warrior. Second Best. A cry baby?
That's what Nike now owns for its $130 million investment.
The question brand marketing companies like Nike have to ask is "what
kid wants to grow up to be Roger Federer today?" Who's going to
want to wear that guy's watch? Who's going to want to shave with
that guy's razor?
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|Federer was unable to control the
flow of tears as he lost to Nadal at
the 2009 Australian Open