Photo: Mike FreyNovak Djokovic (SRB)/Kei Nishikori (JPN)
Six-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic showed up at Stoke Park, England on Thursday afternoon. So did Asia’s top men’s tennis player Kei Nishikori and his fellow Japanese compatriot, wheelchair No. 1 Shingo Kunieda.
The three tennis stars are all world-renowned Global Ambassadors for Uniqlo, the Japanese clothing brand that they proudly represent wherever they travel to hit fuzzy yellow tennis balls. On Thursday, the 30-year-old company, a brand arm of Fast Retailing Co., Ltd. was about to announce a new and exciting involvement within the sport of tennis.
Uniqlo has partnered with the International Tennis Federation (ITF) in a three-year agreement to be the worldwide title sponsor of the ITF Wheelchair Tennis Tour and Wheelchair Doubles Masters, and will also be the international sponsor of the NEC Wheelchair Tennis Masters.
There was no question that Djokovic, who will be the top seed when Wimbledon begins next week, wanted to be on hand to fete this new historic collaboration.
“To me as a tennis player watching Shingo and all watching all the wheelchair tennis players it’s like watching heroes,” said Djokovic, a six-time Grand Slam champion. “Their desire, their will to play, the determination, they’re discipline, just the general positive energy that they bring on the court is tremendous, it is something that is definitely leaving it’s mark on the sport. I’m really privileged to be here and be a part of this great event announcing a partnership that will, hopefully, bring a lot of success to the sport.”
And there’s good reason that Djokovic has so much respect for wheelchair tennis players. He’s actually tried playing the game in a wheelchair and let’s just say he didn’t feel like a tennis superstar.
“It’s diffiult and that’s why I have more appreciation and respect for what they’re doing,” Djokovic said. “For me, it was coordination and I thinking breaking, stopping. I could move, but I didn’t know where I was going to end up. I had all my team members located at different points on the court to catch me if I couldn’t break. It was very interesting to try. When I got into the wheelchair and tried to play tennis and saw how really difficult it is, it made me appreciate what they do.”
Nishikori, who reached a career high ranking of No. 9 last month, was just as keen as Djokovic to give tennis a try from a wheelchair. And similarly to Djokovic, he was surprised to find out how hard it is to do.
“I'm very honoured to be one of the team for Uniqlo and this is very exciting news for Uniqlo and wheelchair tennis,” Nishikori said. “I tried once wheelchair tennis and I couldn’t do anything; I couldn’t hit, I couldn’t move. What they’re doing is a very tough thing, it’s not easy to do. We’re used to using our legs a lot and in a wheelchair you cannot use your legs, so it’s all about using your arms and your core. I need some more practice.”
Kunieda, a 16-time Grand Slam singles champion, three-time paralympic gold medalist and the 2013 ITF Men’s Wheelchair World Champion, sat in-between Djokovic and Nishikori at the joint Uniqlo-ITF announcement. Kunieda, who became Uniqlo’s first tennis global ambassador, was thrilled his two colleagues from tennis wanted to be on the scene for this most important day for wheelchair tennis.
“I have been working with Uniqlo since 2009 and I have been receiving tremendous support from them,” Kunieda said.“I am very delighted they are supporting wheelchair tennis and like to raise the level of tennis overall.”
There’s no doubt that bringing Uniqlo into the ITF sponsorship family is an important step in helping the ITF continue its goal of growing the game of tennis around the world.
“It’s a milestone day in the history of wheelchair tennis, which is one of the fastest growing paralympic sports and it is played in over 40 countries around the world,” said Juan Margets, ITF Vice President. “ The corporate mission of Uniqlo and their parent company is to enrich the lives of people anywhwere and this sponsorship certainly gives the opportunity to expand that mission.”
For Uniqlo, a company with a policy to hire able-bodied and disabled employees throughout their stores, moving into wheelchair sponsorship seemed a natural fit.
“I think one of the principles of the company is that Uniqlo is made for all so we like to extend the Uniqlo brand beyond the obvious,” said Jorgen Andersson, Uniqlo’s Co-Chief Marketing Officer. “So if we’re involved in tennis how can we reach even further into that? Our ambassadors said it today, our respect for people despite being disabled, to conquer that and go beyond that, and challenge themselves, and want to become No. 1.”
And five days from now, on June 24th, the beginning of an ideal relationship between Uniqlo and the ITF will commence when the finest wheelchair players in the world wheel into Paris to play the BNP Paribas Open de France wheelchair tournament.
Related article: UNIQLO and the ITF sign wheelchair tennis agreement