© Ella Ling

Rafael Nadal

Rafa Nadal and the Israeli supermodel


So the sexualisation of Rafa Nadal, a process he has consented to, is complete. The publication this week of Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit edition, which carries images of the Majorcan nuzzling with the Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli, meant that no one can still suggest that he is a tennis-playing innocent, the boy from the barrio with 10 grand slams and the purest and cleanest of minds and images (perhaps Nadal’s long-term girlfriend Xisca is so relaxed about Rafa and Bar’s pictures that she did not even mind that they appeared on Valentine’s Day).

The repackaging of Nadal has been going on for some time now. It all started, you could say, when he lolled about on a rock face during an appearance in a music video for the Colombian singer Shakira. Nadal, one of the all-time tennis greats, was playing the part of the ‘himbo’ love interest. He showed that his skill set, previously thought to centre around hitting whippy topspin forehands, also included snuggling and cuddling for MTV. In that video, for ‘Gypsy’, you saw Rafa splashing water on his face, then you got him looking through a wire fence, pouting like crazy, with the wind-machine blowing his hair, and then he was sitting on a chair, having misplaced his T-shirt somewhere. Soon enough, Nadal was on those rocks with Shakira.

And now Nadal has completed a significant career double – the MTV/Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. It all seems a long time ago that Nadal was known for his three-quarter-length ‘piratas’ trousers, his sleeveless muscle-vests, his bandanas, and for having the looks and the cartoonish enthusiasm and endeavour of Mowgli from the Jungle Book. These days, Nadal wears conventional shorts, has sleeves on his shirts, and does things that would make Mowgli blush. Nadal, in his Nike beach shorts, was relaxed during the shoot (“I was calm and I enjoyed it, it was a new experience for me”), while Refaeli wasn’t: “I love tennis. The combination of him and Sports Illustrated, I was so excited to be a part of this. I was nervous.”

Not that Nadal goes too far. He has created an image which Bloomberg have described as a rare mixture of “humility and virility”. Some have called him “a safe rebel”. Nadal’s management team have sexed-up Rafa – the photos for an aftershave depict him as a demi-mondaine, as a late-night sophisticate – but they have not gone too far. There is, it has to be said, an element of sexism at play here. If he were a woman, if Rafa were a Rachel, some would doubtless be speculating that he had become distracted by these activities. But Nadal is ‘allowed’ to do both; everyone seems to accept that it’s possible to be photographed with a supermodel in a bikini, while also keep focused on trying to stop Novak Djokovic winning slams. Perhaps that’s because everyone accepts that Nadal has an extraordinary work ethic and will to win, that a few bra straps are not going to impede his tennis ambitions.

Or maybe that’s just because everyone takes a different view of how male and female tennis players should be behaving. The men, it would seem, get to objectify themselves. Then they can put their shirts back on and go back to being tennis players.   

Talking to Monica Seles the other day, she sounded excited about the novel she has written, called The Academy. Seles could not say much about the book, because the publishers want her to hold back until just before publication, but her agent has told Publishers Weekly what the book is about: “It’s about a boarding school where the rich and famous send their kids to fulfill their own vicious dreams or the kids’ sometime delusional aspirations.”

  • Nunya!

    Rafa is a beautiful man-beast.  He was already very sexy.  Besides, the Armani ads are way sexier than the si swimsuit shots. 

  • quely

    Rafa’s fans love these “gifts” he gives us from time to time.  

  • Fair and Unbalanced

    Generally speaking, male tennis players do enjoy a double standard when it comes to their behavior on and off court. However, if Rafa’s ranking had dropped precipitously (as Ana Ivanovic’s did, for example), he would have been roundly criticized for his extracurricular activities.

  • Psannie45

    After reading this article…my observation is it’s just one person’s opinion.  I guess since RAFA hasn’t played since the AO… you are bored and need something to say about him.

    This photo shoots was done Summer 2011…yes the magazine was just releasednow as it is every February.  So what…R U  jealous they did not ask you to be in it??? 

    What RAFA chooses to do  w/his time away from the tennis courts is his business and no one elses.  He does not  need any one’s OK or approval…if some tennis fans don’t like it, they can cheer for someone else.  Have you ever heard the old phrase…you can’t please everyone all the time?

    Muslins seem to be weighing in that they disapprove  of the pics.  RAFA is not muslim…he does not have to be covered head to toe.  I hate it when people are judgmental…don’t you???  

  • Missy

    Where have you been hiding not to have seen the MANY WTA photoshoots over the years.  There is no double standard at all.  So people are talking about the gorgeous tennis player in Sports Illustrated.  So what?  It’s not only good for Nadal it’s also good for tennis.  It’s Rafa’s way of giving back and it’s about time.  Ladies have been whistling at Rafa for years now.