US Open Preview: Rafa Sells Underpants



By Bill Simons

It’s a long tradition in tennis.

No, it’s not strawberries and cream or that eternal question, “Tennis anyone?”

It’s undergarments.

In 1932, a  long-forgotten Brit, Bunny Austin, pointed things in a modern direction when he actually dared to wear shorts. In 1949, the naughty but nice California girl Gussy Moran conspired with designer Ted Tinling – supposedly an establishment insider  – and wore a lace-trimmed undergarment at Wimbledon.

Western civilization teetered. Officials fumed.

God forbid they would allow their female competitors to become California girls. A Puritanical fire reigned. But Moran’s fifteen minutes of fame adeptly catapulted her to a considerable career on the edges of tennis, and romances with Egyptian sheiks and the like.

Linda Siegel, another appealing California girl, perhaps could have benefited from some undergarments. When her breast popped out during a 1979 Wimbledon match, the tabloids couldn’t resist. They offered cheeky headlines: “Thanks for the Mammaries.”

In contrast, the Russian sex symbol Anna Kournikova – the most hyped player in history who never won a tournament – put her undergarments to good use. She signed a more-than-supportive endorsement deal with a bra company, which promptly posted billboards all about oh-so-proper London. At a press conference about her promotion, Anna contended, “Women should wear this bra in all circumstances.” But when a reporter asked a question she didn’t like, Kournikova shot back, “We’re here to talk about bras.”

When Russian Tatiana Golovin managed to wear red panties at Wimbledon, she said, “They say red is a color that proves you are strong and confident, so I’m happy with them. We’re just trying to…get a young crowd – and it’s fun.”

But Czech Barbora Zahlavova-Styycova was hardly amused with the ways of Wimbledon. She complained, “It’s very weird [for authorities] to check under my skirt [to see] if I’m wearing white underwear.”

The history of undergarments is over the top. Just before a Wimbledon match this year, the fashion police pounced once again. Genie Bouchard‘s bra strap was black! After winning the US Open, Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zvereva lifted their shirts to show off their Adidas sports bras.

Once the hunky Jan-Michael Gambill complained, “My bags were missing in China for three days. Have you ever tried to find Calvin Klein underwear in Shanghai? There’s so much we take for granted in the States.”

Over at the French Open, Sammy Giammalva asserted, “There’s nothing’s worse than clay in your underwear.” In fact, the two best clay court players in history have a thing for underwear. Sweden’s Bjorn Borg has been selling his colorful Bjorn Borg boxers for years. Okay, there were say-it-isn’t-so revelations about them containing shockingly high levels of toxic chemicals. Still, they sell nicely in Sweden and Holland.

But no one goes over the top about underwear more than Rafa Nadal. Politicians have their wedge issues. Rafa has his wedgie issues. The French sports paper L’Equipe assigned a writer to count how many times Rafa tugged at his backside during a match. It was triple figures.

Of the 606 entrants in a recent BBC contest on the best ways to get into Wimbledon, our favorite suggestion was the notion that you might actually get through the gates by pretending to be “the underwear supplier for Nadal with a new batch of nonstick pants.” LOL.

Now, amidst all the relentless pre-US Open noise and hype, there was Rafa, who earlier this year came out on court with his shorts on backwards. Today, the man whose muscles have muscles had a glint in his Spanish eye. On a hot afternoon, in the shadow of the somber New York Public Library, he coolly promoted his new line of Tommy Hilfiger underwear. The hunk who once told us that “sex is important, but if you’re having a perfect day, you don’t have time for sex,” was having a perfect day. He pranced, preened and played at a pop-up Hilfiger PR event that had it all: Manhattan sexual sizzle, C-level celebs and models, self-important corporate flags, a cadre of photographers, and a giddy mini-throng at Bryant Park, where an alluring emcee announced, “We’re going to play strip tennis today.”

Nadal – at first flawlessly dressed in a gray suit and tie – soon joined in with his supporting cast, bashing hit-and-giggle shots about a makeshift mini-court. If you won a point, your foes had to remove a garment.

Blaring music insisted, “I know you want it.” The emcee teased, “Take it off, take it off, baby, show us what you got.” Then, just before things got out of hand, we were informed, “We’re going to leave it at that – you’re a champ.”

Nadal, the 14-time Slam champ, who hopes the rising Croatian Borna Coric doesn’t undress him in a tough US Open first-round match, once said of his bruising style, “I like the sensation of suffering…it makes me feel good.” On this afternoon people felt good – nothing suffered. Well, nothing but a tad of dignity and a chunk (or should we say hunk) of modesty.