The Beefcake in the Backcourt

Photo: Nigel Parry

Take your time. It’s okay. That photo of Rafael Nadal on the back cover of this magazine is undeniably … what’s a polite way to put it? Arresting. The mussed locks curled just so above the shoulders. The biceps curved like a particularly ripe aubergine. The shadows playing across the deeply grooved abs. All demand extended scrutiny.

When you’re done, ask yourself this: Would Roger Federer ever pose for a photo like that?

Federer and Nadal, in many ways, are perfect foils. All-court finesse versus baseline power, fluid grace versus relentless will, Swiss precision versus Majorcan passion. And that opposition extends to their sense of style. Even if you’ve never watched a minute of their epic matches, a single glance at, say, the photo of them posing at net before the Wimbledon 2008 final would tell you all you needed to know. Federer wears a herringbone-patterned cashmere cardigan, emblazoned with a royal RF logo, and loose white shorts; Nadal is in a sporty sleeveless Nike-emblazoned top and shorts so long they’re practically Capris.

Male tennis fashion has mostly been conservative, built on frequent returns to the preppy classicism of Lacoste and Perry. Federer, who has an interest in high fashion—Anna Wintour famously attends his matches, features him in shoots, and throws parties for him—has flirted with that tradition like no player before. (At previous years’ Wimbledons, he has arrived at Centre Court in a white blazer.) So it’s perhaps appropriate that the year in which Nadal finally conquered him—the Spanish player assumed the No. 1 ranking last week—was also the year in which Federer’s look tipped over into full-blown prissy self-parody.

Nadal has made a point of saying “I don’t have anything to do with the design” of his clothes. Yet he’s managed to create what might be the most original look in men’s tennis history: sleeveless tees, shin-length pants, and bandannas tied with a cheeky flourish. Most tennis style revolutions have happened in the women’s game, from Gussy Moran’s lace-trimmed panties to Serena Williams’s skintight catsuit (see the time line here). Precedents for peacocking are pretty much limited to Björn Borg—known for his body-hugging outfits, headbands, and, for the time, prominent logo display—and Andre Agassi, who turned denim shorts, blond highlights, and garish color choices into a marketing tour de force.

And now here’s Nadal. His has been called a “pirate” look, but the interesting thing about Nadal’s style is that it’s so feminine—a thinner, less physical player could not pull off those clothes. Maybe that’s why he’s been greeted with the kind of moral outrage—“Abominable!” “Infernal!”—usually reserved for the latest female player to show too much skin. Debate over the pants in particular, and Nadal’s habit of reaching back to loosen them between points, has trespassed on the familiar terrain of comfort versus sex appeal. Are they too tight? Is it one of his many elaborate on-court rituals (Nadal’s own explanation)? Or are his butt muscles just too big?

Men’s tennis has always been a modest, gentlemanly affair, its sex appeal limited to handsome faces and wolf-whistles during between-game shirt changes. Not so with Nadal. Not only is he more muscular than any player before him, he’s also more willing to be ogled. Which brings us back to those photos.

The Beefcake in the Backcourt