What can ail thee, Rafael Nadal? Mired in a yearlong slump, tennis’s erstwhile warrior-king goes into the U.S. Open this week with his lowest ranking since 2004 (he’s seeded eighth), and legions of his anguished admirers are offering remedies. Some say he needs a new coach: Rafa’s Uncle Toni and the rest of his team should give way to fresh analysts, as Andy Murray and Roger Federer did when their skills required upgrading. Others call for radical therapy to boost his confidence level—let him watch nonstop videos of his five-set victory over Federer at Wimbledon, in 2008, a match that is often called the greatest of all time. Tactical changes are also proposed: he should hit more flat forehands; stand closer to the net when returning serve; align his two water bottles closer together on the changeovers.
Foolish notions, all of them. The real problem burst on us last week, with a full-page photograph in the New York Times showing Nadal, bronzed and godlike and nearly nude, one hand cupped behind his head, the other tugging provocatively at the waistline of his snug, navy blue Tommy Hilfiger briefs. Nadal, it appeared, had agreed (in January) to be the “global ambassador” for Tommy Hilfiger’s 2015 collections, with special attention to the underwear collection and to the new, hyper-masculine Hilfiger scent, “TH Bold.”
International diplomacy is unusually complex these days, which may be why so few tennis players engage in it. It’s hard to believe that Nadal’s practice schedules and fitness regimens haven’t been disrupted this year by his global negotiations involving underwear and perfume contracts. His competitive edge, moreover, has almost certainly been dulled by epic battles with Giorgio Armani, whose underwear he modelled and represented internationally, in 2011, for market share. How Nadal must envy his resurgent rival Roger Federer, whose endorsement duties require only that he wear a Rolex watch and appear, fully clothed, in self-admiring videos sponsored by Moët & Chandon.
In the nineteen-twenties, my wife’s Uncle Reggie was a Foreign Service officer and also a nationally ranked tennis player. Tennis was an amateur sport then, and nobody thought about endorsements or million-dollar purses—many of the top American players skipped the Australian national championships, because they couldn’t afford the trip. Reginald Kazanjian’s ranking, I believe, was somewhere in the low seventies. His friends all said it would have been much higher if he hadn’t been a diplomat, whose postings often took him to places where there were no tennis courts—his game suffered from too little practice time. Nadal denies having any such problem. “I, for sure, make sure that I have time to practice as much as I can,” he said last week. This was right after he’d appeared in a Hilfiger “strip tennis” promotion in Bryant Park, hitting balls to Hilfiger models, the players taking off items of clothing each time they lost a point. Nadal lost his tie and his shirt, but not his pants. Let’s hope he fares better at the Open.