The Strange Career of Sergio Tacchini

The Italian designer once made tracksuits for the world. Then it went bankrupt. So how did a Chinese investor get the world’s greatest tennis player to wear it again?

After his third-round victory at the 2011 U.S. Open, Novak Djokovic, the eventual champion, slouched in a chair wearing a navy blue T-shirt stamped with “Authentic Club Staff” on the front and the logo of the apparel maker, Sergio Tacchini, on the sleeve.

It was a friendly affair, as these press conferences usually are. (“You play so well on the big points,” began one questioner. “Is that something that’s come over the last year or so?”) At one point, though, Djokovic was put on the defensive. “Around this complex, Roger [Federer] and Rafael Nadal have their own store, Andy Roddick has a huge picture over the Lacoste store. You’re not quite as visible despite being the No. 1 player,” said a reporter. “Do you care about that at all?” Djokovic smiled. “Well, I think I have to talk to my sponsors about it.”

Djokovic, who recovers as well as anyone in the game, cheerfully added, “But, look, you know, I care mostly about, obviously, the game, to win on the court, and everything else I leave to the people who are responsible for that.” The moment was revealing. Having won three of the sport’s four major championships and compiled a match record of 64-3, Djokovic has enjoyed arguably the greatest season in tennis history. His rise also marks a return to prominence for Sergio Tacchini, the 45-year-old brand that pays Djokovic to wear its clothes. Tacchini, worn and then discarded by the best, is worn by the best once more. But that is only part of the story.

Sergio Tacchini was an Italian tennis player, and he founded the company in 1966, toward the end of his career. Tacchini was tired of wearing white. He experimented with stripes and color, and soon started paying other players to wear his designs. In 1972, Ilie Nastăse, the future Hall of Fame player, signed with Tacchini for $5,000. By the end of the decade, John McEnroe was, according to media accounts at the time, getting around $400,000 to wear Tacchini during his epic matches against Björn Borg at Wimbledon. Jimmy Connors and Vitas Gerulaitis wore Tacchini. Tracy Austin and Chris Evert sported the brand’s red, white, and blue warm-ups when the U.S. won the 1980 Fed Cup.

Tacchini representatives traveled around the world, aggressively courting junior players and building the company’s roster of future Hall of Famers. By the early ’80s, Tacchini had expanded into skiwear, beach clothing, golf apparel, and weekend wear. It was a brand for the moment, offering an aesthetic that suggested at once leisure and aggression. The company called its iconic tracksuit “the Dallas.” It also knew how to spot future greats on the rise. In the late ’80s it signed a promising American teenager, Pete Sampras, to a three-year deal. It was extended to five years just before Sampras won his first major title, the 1990 U.S. Open, wearing a Tacchini polo emblazoned with a large yellow archer. Tacchini also outfitted the women’s winner that year, Gabriela Sabatini. It was the brand of champions.

Then it began to fade. By the mid-’90s bigger sports gear makers such as Nike and Adidas were aggressively poaching Tacchini’s clients and eating into its market share. (Sampras jumped to Nike in 1994.) But the company’s biggest headaches came from one of its own: Martina Hingis.

Hingis dominated the women’s tour during the second half of the ’90s. She seemed to fit well into the Tacchini firmament, appealing to wealthy, casually athletic, European-oriented fans. It didn’t work out. Three years into Hingis’s five-year deal, worth $5.6 million, Tacchini fired her, accusing Hingis of not wearing the clothes as contracted. Two years later, Hingis sued, claiming that the “defective” Tacchini shoes she wore had wrecked her feet and ruined her career. (Hingis had surgery in 2001 and 2002 to repair ligaments in her ankles.) A New York court dismissed the suit, ruling that the case should be heard in Milan, where Hingis had signed the contract and where another suit was pending. In 2006 her manager, Mario Widmer, told a German newspaper that “the Tacchini problem is resolved. We have come to a compromise and at the same time have agreed to keep silence on both sides.”

Hingis’s suit hadn’t destroyed the company’s reputation, but it did do damage. By then, though, Tacchini had a bigger concern: It had overexpanded by widening from tennis to other sports and leisure pursuits. Demand for high-end Italian warm-up suits dried up. In 2007 the company declared bankruptcy. A year later a Hong Kong businessman named Billy Ngok bought it for $42 million.

Ngok had made his money in the garment industry. He looked at Tacchini and saw a brand with a past in the West and a future in China. Shortly after taking over the company he began to restructure it, essentially splitting it in two: one international operation based in Italy and one based in China under its own management. Ngok declared that he had plans to expand aggressively in his home country, where tennis is just gaining a foothold. In the meantime, though, he went looking for a legitimate star.

Federer and Nadal were locked up by Nike. Adidas had decided to focus on Scotsman Andy Murray, which made Djokovic available. In some respects, Tacchini was an excellent fit for Djokovic: It was different, and so was he. While Federer was known for his effortless grace and Nadal for his strength and will, Djokovic was known for his impersonations of Maria Sharapova. His hair was oddly uniform, Chia pet-style. He moved like he was built of rubber. His entourage wore embarrassing T-shirts, often bearing the likeness of Djokovic himself. Plus, he was a Serbian patriot. He thumped his chest when he was proud. A bankrupt Italian-Chinese brand once known for its Dallas tracksuit? You could see the potential.

Since signing Djokovic, Tacchini has dressed him in shimmery, slightly malevolent black. At one point it draped the image of a dragon across his back. It has not been afraid of orange or of dramatic color fades. And Tacchini was willing to bet the bank. Company spokesman Edoardo Artaldi won’t say what the payout is—citing a confidentiality agreement—but confirms that the deal is unusually long. Most endorsement contracts run for only a handful of years. Djokovic’s runs for a decade, which should take him through his career, with an additional five years as an “ambassador” after he retires. The package includes the normal tournament incentives and ranking bonuses. Considering Djokovic’s performance in 2011, those payments will be stratospheric. He is also promised royalties based on international sales of clothing under his own line and, separately, a percentage of Tacchini’s business in China.

Of course, to make the royalties, the clothes have to sell, and to sell they have to be available. Distribution and delivery problems meant that Djokovic’s gear wasn’t even in stores during the Open. Compared with its competitors, Tacchini is a tiny company; its international sales outside China bring in about $55 million a year. (Nike’s eight-year contract with Sharapova alone reportedly is worth more than that.) After the U.S. Open, there was talk that Tacchini couldn’t possibly pay the bonuses due to Djokovic. Artaldi says that isn’t true and emphatically dismisses reports that the deal was in jeopardy, or that Djokovic was upset. “He knows what the company can do and what the company cannot do at the moment,” he says.

There have been perhaps a few too many recent reminders of what the company isn’t doing. In his semifinal match against Federer, Djokovic wore a white shirt and shorts and red shoes. You noticed the flashy shoes first. They were by Adidas; Tacchini doesn’t make pro tennis shoes. Adidas is forbidden from using Djokovic in advertisements—but that reporter at the press conference was right: At the U.S. Open, Tacchini wasn’t using his image, either.

For better or worse, publicity in the U.S. does not seem much of a pressing concern. There are other markets, after all. After Djokovic won Wimbledon, Ngok accompanied him to Belgrade. There, Ngok—and businessman Ron Burkle, who was also in Djokovic’s box at the Open and hosted his victory party—met with Serbian officials, including Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, who was recently named head of Serbia’s tennis association. Blic, a Serbian newspaper, reported that Ngok discussed opening a power plant in Niš and manufacturing Tacchini clothes in the country. Already, Tacchini sponsors the Serbian Open, whose tournament director is Goran Djokovic, Novak’s uncle. “Part of his family is there,” Artaldi says. “For them it is very important, his country.”

In 1983—the heyday of the Dallas tracksuit—a Sergio Tacchini executive named Fernando Flisi told New York magazine that Tacchini’s mission was to keep the players looking good and happy. “We also want their friends to be happy,” he added, “and I can assure you that each of these guys has a lot of friends.” Indeed they do! When Djokovic rode into Belgrade after his win at Wimbledon over Nadal, he was greeted by an estimated 100,000 fans. Everyone seemed very happy.

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