Novak Djokovic’s bid to become the greatest of all time in men’s tennis has been delayed and his career earnings could follow suit after he was deported from Australia earlier this week.
The world number one has earned more money on court than any other player but his inability to participate in this month’s Australian Open – and potentially future Grand Slam events as an unvaccinated athlete – will affect his earnings this year.
That, in turn, could slow increases to his total net worth as sponsors reassess their relationship with Djokovic, 34, after his protracted battle with Australian authorities over his visa and coronavirus vaccination status.
The tennis star was attempting to win a record 21st Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, which would have earned him $2.87 million.
What is Djokovic's net worth?
Djokovic has earned more than $154.7m since he turned pro in 2003. As is the case with most other professional athletes, endorsements and marketing deals contribute greatly to his net worth.
He has assets worth $220 million, according to wealth tracking website Celebrity Net Worth.
Whether he makes it back on to court or not, Djokovic has used his earnings to fund a significant portfolio of events and businesses that could serve him well when he chooses – or is forced – to retire.
“His image is going to be tarnished because of this situation, because most of the players who play in this tournament [Australian Open] are vaccinated and have respected the rules,” Josh Schwartz, in charge of athlete marketing at American agency Pivot, told AFP.
Sponsors will be watching to determine the impact of Djokovic’s actions.
“We are what the world sees,” says UAE-based personal brand expert and business mentor Kelly Lundberg. “Sponsorship is huge business, most are seen as a partnership that is mutually beneficial for both sponsor and endorser. When entering into such an arrangement having a carefully considered sponsorship strategy is key to protecting both brands.
“Public figures need to remember that they are accountable to set an example for their peers and followers. Reckless and controversial actions may cause them to lose deals and seriously affect their brand credibility which will take them time and effort to recover from,” Ms Lundberg added.
How much does Djokovic earn from sponsorship deals?
Djokovic's lead sponsor Lacoste has said it wants to discuss events leading up to the player’s visa battle, which led to him being detained by Australia’s Border Force at the airport and subsequently in a hotel for asylum seekers, before he was freed to contest the issue in court.
“As soon as possible, we will be in touch with Novak Djokovic to review the events that have accompanied his presence in Australia,” the French clothing brand said on Monday.
“We wish everyone an excellent tournament and thank the organisers for all their efforts to ensure that the tournament is held in good conditions for players, staff and spectators.”
Lacoste is thought to be Djokovic’s biggest sponsor with an annual contract worth a reported $9m, according to American media. The deal runs until 2025.
The Serbian star banked sponsorship deals worth $30m in the year to August 2021 and on-court winnings of $4.5m over the same period, according to estimates by Forbes magazine.
Brands working with Djokovic include Japanese sports equipment maker Asics, Swiss watch brand Hublot, American-Austrian racket manufacturer Head and French carmaker Peugeot.
For now, most brands are playing a waiting game as executives wait to see how events unfold and what the future holds, given that other tournaments are considering whether to enforce vaccination rules.
“As a sponsor, we are closely monitoring the continuing situation,” Vienna-based Raiffeisen Bank said.
It said its partnership dates back to “long before the reporting on the vaccination status of Novak Djokovic or his participation in the Australian Open”.
The financial institution signed on the player as an ambassador in April and announced its support of the recently established Tennis Academy of Novak Djokovic in Belgrade.
Hublot, which linked up with Djokovic in August, said its association would continue.
“Novak Djokovic is his own man. We cannot comment on his decisions. Hublot will continue its partnership with the world number one in tennis,” a spokeswoman told AFP.
They may be betting that sports fans will continue to embrace the famously fiery Serb – although his tantrums have notably seen him disqualified at least once, at the 2020 US Open.
Rival Roger Federer, on the other hand, has no such problems. His “nice guy” personality helped him bank pre-tax earnings of $90.6m in the year to September, three times as much as Djokovic.
Nevertheless, fans will only rationalise athletes’ behaviour up to a point. His continued stance against Covid-19 vaccinations could force fans to desert Djokovic in droves, with sponsors following suit, experts say.
“Sponsorship deals focus not only on the performance of the endorser, they focus on the image and message they communicate. That can come at a price when things go wrong! Increasingly we have seen that brands won’t think twice about dropping sponsorship if a client courts controversy creating unfavourable social media backlash,” Ms Lundberg says.
Cyclist Lance Armstrong lost sponsors such as Nike, bike maker Trek and brewer Anheuser-Busch in 2012 after his doping scandal. When tennis star Maria Sharapova failed a drug test in 2016, sponsors such as Nike, Porsche and watch brand Tag Heuer withdrew their support.
However, anti-vaccine statements have not hurt athletes so far. When NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers made ambiguous comments about vaccination in November, he was only dropped by one sponsor: Prevea Health. Nor did NBA basketball star Kyrie Irving suffer after speaking out against vaccination policies for athletes in New York state.
However, “if you lose enough fans, then you will lose sponsors”, Nicole Melton, professor of sports management at University of Massachusetts Amherst, told AP.
By one measure, at least, Djokovic may already be losing points with his admirers. Gemba, an Australia-based communications agency, tracks the likeability of athletes, teams and leagues on a proprietary index.
In 2017, 30 per cent of Australians liked Djokovic, with only 10 per cent disliking him. Five years later, a quarter of Australians disliked Djokovic in 2021, compared with 20 per cent who liked him.
On the other hand, that contrasts with scenes in his home country this week. Arriving in Belgrade via Dubai on Monday, Djokovic was given a hero’s welcome, with crowds of fans chanting his name and waving banners. The previous evening, a building in the Serbian capital was illuminated with the words, “Nole, you are the pride of Serbia”, referring to the player’s nickname.
Overall, new sponsors may well wait until the dust settles. Djokovic’s admission of not isolating despite testing positive in December could result in his character being further questioned.
“Any company that maybe was on the fence about working with him, this particular incident is just going to fuel the flames for not choosing to work with him, at least in the near term,” Patrick Rishe, professor of sports economics at Washington University in the US city of St Louis, told AFP.
“It is unfortunate because he is on the cusp of setting the record for Grand Slam victories. Normally, when someone reaches this status, you would think there would be endorsement opportunities but I do not see any coming up in the short term.”
Does Djokovic face playing restrictions?
Fan problems may pale in comparison to court dramas of a different kind. Djokovic could be kept away from the source of his wealth over the short term at least, with his participation in other tennis events this year looking uncertain thanks to his unvaccinated status.
France’s sports ministry said on Monday that nobody would be exempted from the country’s new vaccine pass law.
“The rule is simple. The vaccine pass will be imposed, as soon as the law is promulgated, in establishments that were already subject to the health pass. This will apply to everyone who is a spectator or a professional sportsperson. And this [is] until further notice,” the ministry said, while acknowledging that the situation could change before the French Open at Roland Garros in May.
Similar rules would apply at the Madrid Open in April. Current entry rules to the US – covering Indian Wells and the Miami Open in March and the US Open in August – require those travelling to the US to be vaccinated unless they are citizens, permanent residents or travelling on an immigrant visa.
Defending his title at Wimbledon will require him to adhere to a significant quarantine and testing regime.
As the top seed going into most tournaments, Djokovic could lose out on millions of dollars. The top prize at this year’s Australian Open is $2.87m, a 4.55 per cent increase from 2021, while the runner-up receives $1.57m.
Final purses for the other Grand Slams have not been confirmed but 2021’s top prizes at the three remaining tournaments add up to about $6.73m after currency conversions.
Additional playing income may come from exhibition matches and bonuses.
Tennis players’ endorsement contracts usually include reductions if they do not meet minimum play requirements. While the biggest players often negotiate exemptions, sponsors nevertheless bank on their ambassadors being seen in action on court – and lifting a trophy. Nothing sells like success.
Does Djokovic have other business interests?
So far, Djokovic has attempted a modicum of damage control. On Sunday, he said he was disappointed but respected Australia's Federal Court ruling that upheld the government's deportation order.
“I am uncomfortable that the focus of the past weeks has been on me and I hope that we can all now focus on the game and the tournament I love,” he said before flying out of Melbourne.
Should he be forced to serve fewer balls, Djokovic has a significant business empire to fall back on. In 2005, he set up a company, Family Sport, with his parents and his younger brothers.
It serves as the umbrella organisation for a range of business ventures, including restaurants and catering, and organises the Serbia Open, an ATP Tour event that has run intermittently since 2009.
In 2009, he opened his first restaurant in Dorcol, Belgrade, following up with another in the nearby municipality of New Belgrade. Both draw locals and tourists, not least for their gluten-free menu.
The tennis star launched a chain of consumer packaged foods, Djokolife, in 2015, but the products have not been promoted online since 2016.
Djokovic also owns a portfolio of prime real estate, including a two-bedroom apartment in Monte Carlo, one of the world’s most expensive property markets, two apartments in New York City and a three-bedroom penthouse in Miami.
Whether he will need to become a full-time entrepreneur sooner than he expected remains to be seen. For now, experts believe Djokovic could soon be back on court.
“As consumers, we have very short memories,” Joe Favorito, a sports marketing specialist who teaches at Columbia University in the United States, told AFP.
“We love heroes and villains and we love seeing people overcome hardships. If Novak Djokovic comes back, anywhere, it will top all of that because he did not break any laws. This is just his opinion. It in no way diminishes what he has done on the courts.”
Who were the world's top-earning tennis players in 2021?
- Roger Federer – $90 million
- Naomi Osaka – $60m
- Serena Williams – $41m
- Novak Djokovic – $38m
- Rafael Nadal – $27m
- Kei Nishikori – $26m
- Daniil Medvedev – $13m
- Dominic Thiem – $8.9m
- Stefanos Tsitsipas – $8.1m
- Ashley Barty – $5m