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Friday, August 29, 2008

Nadal Keeps New Look Under Wraps for Now

Tennis Star Decides Updated Nike Garb Won't Show at Open

Hours before his first U.S. Open match Monday, Rafael Nadal decided that his game was more important than his wardrobe, telling his advisers and corporate sponsor Nike Inc. that he wasn't ready for an image makeover after all.

Over three days the exuberant Spanish star known as Rafa had practiced in new fashion apparel that included such radical adjustments as shirts with short sleeves and pants that stopped above the knee instead of a few inches below.

But Mr. Nadal ultimately decided that his first match at the final Grand Slam event of the year wasn't the right setting for his planned sartorial reinvention -- particularly after he had captured two Grand Slams, Olympic gold and the top spot in the world rankings in his old garb.

"Frankly, Nadal is on a roll," said Kilee Hughes, a spokesman for Beaverton, Ore.-based Nike, which designs Mr. Nadal's clothes. "We listen to the voice of the athlete."

Nike had unveiled Mr. Nadal's new look after months of careful planning that began with a trip by Nike's design team to the star's home in Majorca, Spain. The company put its new lightweight shirt through "numerous discussions and wear-testings" to ensure that it wouldn't hinder his performance, and it created shorts designed to "move with him -- from baseline to net -- without chafing or bunching up." It praised the final ensemble as a look that "balances his casual off-court personality with the technical precision and passion he brings to the game."

But perhaps no one is more resistant to change than an athlete on a winning streak. In a field in which some male athletes wear women's apparel, such as underwear, or forego shaving to preserve a winning streak, it isn't so surprising that Mr. Nadal decided not to make the change overnight, particularly on a stage as grand as the U.S. Open.

Nike's Ms. Hughes said Mr. Nadal's change of mind was "not a setback at all" for Nike but rather the byproduct of a "highly unusual" schedule. She said Mr. Nadal is still committed to switching to the new gear, perhaps at one of the smaller tournaments after the U.S. Open.

The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that after months of consultation with designers at Nike and his management team, Mr. Nadal had decided to shift his image. Now that he was the top player on the planet, Mr. Nadal was ready to bid farewell to the adolescent muscle T-shirts and Capri-style pants that had garnered nearly as much renown as his lightning strokes and adopt a more traditional tennis look.

"I am excited about evolving my on-court apparel with Nike to a polo and shorter-length short," Mr. Nadal said in a statement Monday afternoon. "For the U.S. Open, however, we collectively decided I would continue wearing the apparel I've been competing in all year. It's a decision we made based on the limited time I've had to practice in the new apparel between the Olympics and the U.S. Open."

So far, so good. Mr. Nadal won his opening match Monday in straight sets, sleevelessly.

By: Matthew Futterman
Wall Street Journal; August 26, 2008