The Main Characters of Tennis, and Style

It started out unobtrusively. When Roger Federer unveiled his monogram at Wimbledon in 2006, it was a gold crest embroidered on the breast pocket of the white blazer he wore to accept the trophy. From a distance, it might easily have been mistaken for a club’s insignia. And it did in fact proclaim his admission to a club, one with a membership of two: Federer had joined Tiger Woods as the only other Nike athlete to be marketed on the basis of his initials.

By 2007, the filigreed scrollwork had morphed into stylized block capitals and had spread to his shoes. A year later, the new monogram turned up at Wimbledon, embroidered in gold on an ivory cardigan and framed by a shield, like a Swiss canton’s coat of arms.

This summer, it’s back. It’s big — big enough to be legible in photographs. And it’s everywhere: on his shoes, on his belt tab, on his duffel, on his jackets, on the plastic bags his new rackets come in. Forget all the subtle functions a monogram used to perform — discreetly personalizing a gentleman’s wardrobe, helping the servants sort the shirts. What three years ago seemed a plausible, if affected, personal flourish on the part of an athlete whose style of dress and style of play had positioned him as the Fred Astaire of tennis — light on his feet, with a penchant for tuxedo black for night matches and a Rolex commercial in which he shows off his serve in a two-button suit — had somehow escalated into a master-of-all-he-surveys exercise in personal branding.

Fans took note. Some took umbrage. Tennis bloggers had a field day, nicknaming him Monogram Man or Mr. Monogram or Monogram for short. No sooner had Federer defeated Andy Roddick in the 30th game of Wimbledon’s marathon fifth set than he put on a gold-monogrammed white warm-up jacket emblazoned with a “15” to commemorate his breaking Pete Sampras’s Grand Slam men’s victory record.

That struck some viewers as tactless, at best, and worse, a shocking instance of gloating, a slap in Roddick’s face. Federer’s defenders argued that he was within his rights, like teams that win the Stanley Cup or the Super Bowl and are instantly provided with T-shirts and caps advertising their victory.

Fair enough, although the aura of old-world politesse that surrounds tennis seems to set it apart from sports in which players routinely trash-talk and insult one another’s mothers. Federer later said that somebody handed him the jacket and he just put it on, and besides, he protested, he had worn a jacket with a “14” for his French Open victory and nobody seemed to care.

Some fans speculated that the idea for the monogram had been his all along. Others insisted that Nike made him do it.

“Well, I’m surprised to hear that, because I don’t have to wear anything or do anything anybody tells me,” Federer said during a recent interview in Switzerland. “I do everything myself. It’s really up to me. “

The idea for a monogram emerged from the logo that Mirka Vavrinec, now Federer’s wife, and her father developed for his fragrance, RF-Roger Federer, introduced in 2003. The result was a freehand squiggle. If you knew what you were looking at, you saw the R and the F; if you didn’t, you didn’t. (A three-letter monogram was apparently never an option because Federer has no middle name.)

Federer liked the approach and suggested that Nike come up with a strategy along the same lines.

“For me, it’s important that a fan can buy something that is related to me,” he said. “Like in soccer, you buy a shirt and it’s got somebody’s name on the back. That’s kind of a cool thing.”

His intent was that a monogram would offer a connection as direct but not as literal as a team jersey.

From their first, Ralph Lauren-like crest, Nike “evolved the concept and made it more relevant to performance products, very modern and very sleek,” said Janet Lucena, the design director for Nike global tennis apparel. Letters are laser-cut instead of embroidered, for a more contemporary look and a lighter weight.

“They’ve eliminated the common element, the vertical stroke, so it’s only the horizontals that differentiate the two letters,” said Michael Bierut, a partner in the New York office of Pentagram, the international design consulting firm. “I think it’s a nice balancing act — the idea of tradition with this serif font and modernity with the missing parts of the letters, asking your mind’s eye to fill in what’s not there.”

The Federer monogram, Bierut said, “is not particularly remarkable as a logo, but within its genre and the overall landscape of sports graphics, I think it’s quite distinctive.”

“The ‘NY’ for the Yankees — that’s a monogram, too,” he continued. “But sports monograms are generally more forthright and blunt. The Federer monogram creates not a sports brand but a fashion brand.”

The font — a slightly redrawn version of Bodoni, which with its cousin Didot has been the basis for logos for Vogue, Giorgio Armani and Louis Vuitton — is “a signifier of fashion at the high end,” Bierut said, adding, “With the sort of enigmatic way it’s been drawn, Federer’s monogram is partaking of the cues of high design.”

No player on the men’s tour seems as intrigued by fashion as Federer, nor has any other player been so roundly criticized for his clothes. Case in point: his entrance for this year’s Wimbledon final, in a white suit that looked like the sort of uniform a British Army officer might have worn in India.

“I thought the military jacket would be something completely different, something cool,” he said. “I knew it was going to be a bit more aggressive, either a love or hate thing. But that’s not bad. You can’t always be the nice guy, going through the middle, like, All right, I’m just wearing a cardigan again this year.”

Then there was the gold. Gold, to match the Wimbledon trophy. Gold, the medal awarded to athletes who finish first. But also gold, the metal of unabashed fashionistas flaunting their money — an unfortunate choice for a multimillionaire with a Netjets commercial.

“Maybe we’ve overdone it with gold at Wimbledon,” Federer said. “Maybe for some people, gold is a bit like, ‘He’s trying to show off.’ They think it’s too much bling bling, which is not the goal. It’s to have that connection with the trophy.”

Of the monogrammed items Nike has developed for Federer, the cap and the warm-up jacket are for sale. Despite an appeal that may seem limited at retail (attention, Ralph Fiennes: your monogram is waiting), the response has been strong, said a Nike spokeswoman who declined to divulge sales figures. Unlike athletes’ product lines branded with a symbol — René Lacoste’s trademark crocodile or Greg Norman’s shark — Federer’s monogram puts no neutral zone between him and the person wearing it.

“It’s easy for people who have no idea what that alligator means to wear a Lacoste shirt without thinking they’re contributing to the greater glory of another person,” Bierut said. But in Federer’s case, the product is burnishing his image: he is the brand.

Nike’s monogram for Woods (designed in 1996, revised in 2000) is a stark, geometric, semiabstract design that has been deployed more sparingly than Federer’s. Some recognize Woods’s monogram from the caps he wears; others have never noticed it.

But the Woods parallel is there all the same, and it serves Federer well. As he moves to consolidate his standing in the record book, his highly publicized friendship with Woods has reinforced the perception that he is to tennis what Woods is to golf. Two consummate athletes, alone at the summits of their respective sports, each comprehensible only to the other.

How to square the relentlessly nice guy his opponents could not bring themselves to dislike with the Federer who seems so eager to separate himself from his peers and clinch his distinction as the greatest ever at a moment when his nemesis has been conveniently sidelined by an injury?

For all his presumably genuine kindness, Federer has never lacked self-regard. A conviction that he was destined for a place in history, a sense of entitlement to victory, even when it eluded him — a handful of recent statements seem to reinforce these themes and confirm the intimations of pomposity that had set in when the monogram became bigger and more ubiquitous. (Among his remarks post-Wimbledon: “It was such a historic day in tennis and me being the main character… .”)

Meanwhile, the Carlyle, Manhattan’s home away from home for many celebrities, has christened the suite where Federer stays in his honor. As a courtesy provided to all the hotel’s V.I.P. clients, the pillowcases are monogrammed.

Link to orignal article here.

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