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Sergio Tacchini, Djokovic Shockingly Part Ways

Tuesday, 22 May 2012 | 10:40 AM ET

In November of 2009, Novak Djokovic signed a 10-year apparel deal with Sergio Tacchini, as his former sponsor adidas put its money in Andy Murray. It was a huge coup for the brand, who once had Pete Sampras and John McEnroe, but hadn’t been able to find relevance.

2011 US Open Singles Men's Champion Novak Djokovic of Serbia poses with his trophy atop the Empire State Building on September 13, 2011 in New York City, New York.
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2011 US Open Singles Men's Champion Novak Djokovic of Serbia poses with his trophy atop the Empire State Building on September 13, 2011 in New York City, New York.

But on Tuesday, Tacchini announced in a statement that the two had mutually decided to part ways. The reasoning? The small brand couldn’t handle the success that the Serbian player had with them.

In their clothes, Djokovic has won four majors, including the Australian Open twice. He has also won 84.7 percent of his matches (161 out of 190) and has been No. 1 in the world for nearly 11 consecutive months.

The story of how the deal unraveled is hard to fathom.

Sources tell CNBC that Tacchini was able to sign Djokovic by offering him a smaller guarantee than the larger companies would pay, but promised bigger should he do well. When Djokovic kept winning, the company fell behind on payments to the tennis star.

There were also design problems in that some of the outfits it put Djokovic in weren’t popular in the United States, where the biggest market exists to sell high end tennis gear.

But the biggest problem was distribution. Many of Djokovic’s Grand Slam outfits never even made to the United States, including the apparel he wore when he won last year’s US Open.

“We preordered all this apparel and it was always either shorted or we didn’t get it at all,” said Brian Hirshfeld, owner of Holabird Sports, a tennis specialty retailer in Baltimore. “It was an insult to our industry, to the brand and to him.”

One insider tells CNBC that there were constant fights between the Tacchini reps in Italy and the United States. Those battles were centered around disagreements over money owed by distributors, priority given to European stores on shipments, and suggested prices that priced out much of the marketplace. Tacchini polo shirts often retailed for $80, $20 more than a Nike tennis shirt of a similar make.

The only way one US retailer, Tennis Warehouse, was able to carry Djokovic’s Tacchini gear exclusively in the US, is that it was shipping gear that it had received from its European affiliate.

“They were handed the perfect storm with Djokovic and they couldn’t deal with it,” said another insider.

Sergio Tacchini was never able to deal with Djokovic’s success. In September, CNBC detailed how the company had dropped the ball on the Djokovic deal.

“In order to become a big brand, you have to get lucky and sign a rock star,” Greg Wolf, who runs Midwest Sports in Cincinnati, told CNBC at the time. “They did that. That’s the easy part. But they can’t keep paying him if they don’t know how to backfill the product.”

Tacchini was bought for $42 million in 2008 by Chinese business man Billy Ngok, who is managing director of a company called China Environmental Energy Holdings, which has business in Djokovic’s native Serbia. After Djokovic won Wimbledon last year, Ngok traveled with Djokovic to Serbia, where there was talk of producing Tacchini gear there.

Multiple Serbian publications are reporting that on Wednesday Djokovic will sign with Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo, who already has Japanese tennis player Kei Nishikori on its roster.

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com

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