I always like looking at how the media, especially non-sports media, follow tennis. Leading up to the U.S. Open, there’s been a lot of press obviously about who’s the favorite and players to watch. But a new trend that’s appearing is the increase of “Getting to Know Rafael Nadal” articles and more specifically those written with the premise of that despite being the No. 1 player in the world and having just won the French Open and Wimbledon, a lot of Americans still don’t know who he is.
Sounds crazy right? Not really.
During a conference call with Tennis Channel analyst Jimmy Connors, someone asked about Nadal’s popularity here in the U.S. being less than that of Roger Federer, Andy Roddick and even past greats like John McEnroe and Pete Sampras and how a U.S Open win would make Nadal more known in the U.S. Connors answered with, “I thought he was pretty popular over here. I don’t know why you say that he is not popular. I think that the fans who turn on the TV and watch Nadal play tennis have – look at him with the utmost respect to the point of just by the pure effort and enthusiasm that he brings to the game.”
Later, the reporter, though agreeing with Connors, cited that marketing polls in the U.S. have Nadal’s name registering lower than other tennis stars. Connors responded with, “You can’t tell me that you would walk into a restaurant and you wouldn’t notice him. Even in the United States though he might be bigger in Europe because he is from Spain. But to win here, certainly would be a tremendous kick for him to become more popular and maybe bigger on Madison Avenue or whatever.” I agree with Connors that diehard tennis fans would know who Nadal is at first sight, but hearing that Nadal’s name doesn’t quite register yet with all of America doesn’t surprise me. Even casual fans here in the States who really only pay attention to the sport during the Wimbledon/U.S. Open window each year are just now wrapping their heads around the fact that Federer’s reign is coming to an end in the next few years.
A U.S. Open win would certainly help make Nadal more popular with Madison Avenue or “whatever” in this case New York itself which has watched Nadal for years now at the U.S. Open despite it not always being his best event. In a recent article for the New York Observer titled “Rally Round Nadal, Boys” John Koblin cites how Nadal, perhaps due to his still less than spectacular command of English along with not always showing true excitement for being in New York may have cooled U.S. Open fans to him. Maybe so, but Nadal is still also competing for the affections of New York’s one true love, Roger Federer, who with his suave demeanor, ability to speak multiple languages and being BFF’s with Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, makes him any New Yorker’s ideal dinner party guest.
But as Koblin and other writers note, with both Roddick and Federer being very much in the later part of their careers, Americans, and New Yorkers who sometimes like to think of themselves as being completely separate from the rest of the country, will have to eventually embrace Nadal as the new king of tennis, even if his man-boy demeanor and preference to speak in Spanish get in the way. One could say that current U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro could face a similar climb to gain American acceptance, especially if he continues to dominate Nadal, once del Potro returns to the game.
Nadal himself may not care how he’s perceived by Madison Avenue and as Connors correctly pointed out in the call, Nadal’s definitely not hurting for endorsement deals. But America is still seen as the “golden ring” for any sports star, especially those from overseas. How well Nadal translates his “vamos” to America in the next few years will not only define his career but the sport for some time to come.