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.”