Novak Djokovic undoubtedly is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. The Serbian holds the record for most time spent atop the ATP rankings in tour history (over 356 weeks); and despite being 34 years of age remains favourite to end his career as the most decorated player at the slams, surpassing Federer, and Nadal outright.
Despite his unquestionable greatness on the court, the Serbian has never received the adulation and perhaps respect that he has often demanded. In years gone by, the lack of love he receives from the biggest tennis crowds could be explained from the sports community’s undevoted love for Federer and Nadal, both of whom had built an enormous reputation before the Serb started winning regularly.
Additionally, his mannerisms and personality are in stark contrast to others, so whilst Federer remains the epitome of class and style, Djokovic retains a hardened and sometimes aggressive image which has failed to resonate with fans. This has led to him becoming as polarising a figure in world sport as any other sportsperson in the modern era.
Whilst Djokovic often looks to endear himself with crowds, engaging with ball kids and making jokes, this side is quicky overlooked in when on other occasions the Serb can be seen smashing rackets and shouting at umpires/crowds.
Djokovic has become the biggest news story of the first slam of the year without having to even pick up a racket, with his deportation from Australia dividing opinion. So, whilst his absence from the slam represents will mean that his sponsors will gain less on-court engagement, the reality is that this recent saga has offered them more of a spotlight than any tennis game could have.
With 29.75 million combined social media followers, the Serbian offers a large and global audience reach and in doing so retains a sponsorship portfolio of seven brands, earning him an estimated $26.5 million a year. The significance of this is that Djokovic stands to earn more from sponsors than he does prize money, earning just over $9 million across the tennis calendar in 2021.
As such his brand image is three times more financially lucrative than tennis itself, and the controversy around his recent public saga could easily result in a loss of brand confidence and subsequently hit the pockets of Djokovic harder than any potential loss in form. His partners have so far remained quiet on their partnerships with the world number one but will undoubtedly be asking themselves if Djokovic’s beliefs are something they want to associate with and stand for by association.
His biggest backer, Lacoste have used Djokovic as the face of their tennis apparel for years and for growing their presence in the sport against heavyweights such as adidas and Nike. Lacoste now account for the main kit supplier brand for ten per cent of the men’s top 100 players and are the joint second most visible supplier in the elite men’s game, behind only Nike.
With nine other top-100 players, Lacoste have a strong portfolio to fall back on should they choose to separate from Djokovic, with Russian Daniil Medvedev a star they can quickly fall back on. Medvedev is in the prime of his career, currently number two in the world, a newly crowned grand slam champion and hotly tipped favourite for the top prize in Australia in a couple of weeks’ time.
The brand’s tennis strength in depth is perhaps the biggest threat to Djokovic’s relationship with Lacoste, with recent events a potential excuse to move in another direction, though the image of Medvedev is hardly the cleanest, having faced boos at the US Open in recent years for his unsportsmanlike and a bad attitude.
Whilst dropping the best player in the world on paper may sound ludicrous, Djokovic’s age and question marks around his involvement in other slams in 2022, mean that the notion becomes more realistic. The easiest solution for the Serbian could be to have the vaccine and alleviate sponsor concerns that surround his image and exposure at the remaining three slams in 2022, especially in light of France approving a law requiring people to be vaccinated in order to enter sporting venues while New York requires proof of vaccination to enter sporting venues, as highlighted by the NBA star Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets being unable to play in Nets home games.
Until such a solution has been reached, his sponsors can expect the story to persist in the sport throughout the calendar, with organisers at Roland Garros already casting some doubt around his inclusion, reiterating that participating athletes will be mandated to have vaccine passes.
However, given Djokovic’s status in the game, large online following, and retention of large support and sympathy in light of events in Australia, his commercial appeal should remain high, with new prospective partners likely being prepared to gamble on such partnership in the event that his current brands do in fact drop in him in the coming weeks.
Expect Djokovic to be able to ride out the storm however and retain his current crop of partners – he has overcome much greater threats to image in the past and remains on course to break further records and create even more history on the tennis court.