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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. 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. “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.””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.