Nadal's start shines bright with sponsors

Rafael Nadal will turn 21 this June during the middle weekend of the French Open, the event that has become his personal bullring.

The milestone birthday marks the beginning of the past tense for all those age-dependent adjectives we've routinely attached to his name. Nadal burst into the men's tennis universe with more force than any adolescent since Boris Becker; he broke the teenaged records no one had bothered to look up since Bjorn Borg was a pup.

Now we get to watch him grow up, and it should be fascinating. Lots of ink has been spilled about whether he can successfully diversify his game as he matures, but what will getting older mean to his persona?

Nadal is on the brink of adulthood, yet he is a worldwide symbol of youth, "a video game come to life," as commentator Jim Courier puts it. "Kids get it. They love him."

In the real-life marketplace, Nadal is a Nintendo game you can order online. In our opinion, it should have been called Claystation, with a mini-racket for a joy stick.

He's downloadable mobile content, featured in cell phone wallpaper created by Seattle-area Versaly Entertainment and targeted at 13-to-29-year-old consumers. Versaly CEO Matthew Feldman said the company made sure to include close-ups and shirtless shots along with the fist-pumping on-court celebrations, all emblazoned with the player's digitized signature. Nadal, as wired as a player can get, is therefore also wireless.

He represents muscle in a field of mostly wiry guys and lack of guile in an era of practiced sound bytes. No other player wears his heart so literally on his shoes, which bear the words Vamos and Rafa and a bull silhouette he specifically requested. He came along at exactly the right time for Nike, which needed to "rejuvenate our game" in the post-Pete-and-Andre era circa 2005, spokeswoman Maggie Mahler said. Nadal signed with Nike the same season Agassi left the corporate stable.

No player other than Nadal could pull off wearing those vivid colors, baring more arm and less leg than any of his peers, a guaranteed conversation starter no matter where you stand on the tennis fashion spectrum. The intrepid blog posters over at TENNIS.com have based an entire cult, the Rafael Nadal Knee Appreciation Society (RNKAS), on the cut of his three-quarter-length pants.

Yet as his press liaison Benito Perez Barbadillo observed, Nadal is practically preppy off the court. "When he dresses normally, he's conservative -- polo shirts and V-neck sweaters," Barbadillo said fondly. "If you look at pictures of him at parties, you'll often see him wearing a blazer."

This comic book hero/Clark Kent dichotomy is one of the most appealing things about Nadal. He's still the boy next door on his native island of Mallorca, where he lives in his family's apartment building. He's unfailingly polite and works hard at being not only expressive but witty in his second language, though there's no doubt that those of us who are non-Spanish speakers miss out.

"When he talks, he shows that the best part of his tennis is in his brain," said Sebastian Fest, a Madrid-based writer for the international news agency DPA. "He has a very powerful mind, and he thinks about everything he says. He's very intuitive."

In Spain, Nadal is considered the most accessible of the country's three active sporting icons. The Memphis Grizzlies' Pau Gasol, 26, became the first Spanish player to make the NBA All-Star team last year, but he practices his craft entirely in North America. Two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso, 25, is revered for breaking Michael Schumacher's viselike grip on that circuit, but he conducts business encased in a helmet and a car that make his in-race emotions as remote as an astronaut's.

Then comes Rafa, who sweats through his bandana before the end of the first set, gets as dirty on clay as a hard hat on a construction site and wades into crowds after matches.

"He is much closer to the people," said Spanish Davis Cup captain Emilio Sanchez. "He has his feet on the earth. Every time he goes on the court, he gives 100 percent. He wins, he wins very young, he wins twice in Paris already and makes the final in Wimbledon. He has a lot of space to improve. His tennis is not completely set. Until you are 23 or 24, you are not a mature player."

There's no doubt that Nadal's rivalry with Roger Federer could continue to ripen from its early jumping-off point, assuming Nadal stays healthy and Federer stays interested. They have humility in common, but little else, and their contrasting personalities have already become part of Nadal's aura.

They've played nine times since 2004, including twice in Grand Slam finals. By comparison, Agassi and Sampras played only five of their 34 matches and one Slam final before they hit 21; Borg and John McEnroe didn't meet in a Slam final until the Swede was 24 and the American 21.

Nadal's unprecedented residency in the No. 2 slot, which will hit two years in July, has guaranteed that every meeting is for major stakes. Still, given Nadal's dominance on clay and Federer's everywhere else, it seems at times that they're less on a collision course than orbiting different planets.

In an on-court interview after winning at Indian Wells, Nadal affably said he doesn't dwell on Federer until he has to. "He's always in the other part of the draw," Nadal said. It's a luxury he enjoys practically alone on the ATP Tour.

If Nadal does have more growing to do, he'll have to reach his full adult height in an environment where he's measured weekly. He'll have to stay sound despite the pounding his playing style entails. And he'll have to compete against the vigorous standard set by his teenaged self. That became obvious when people began writing his obit after he went nine months without a title between the 2006 French Open and last month's Pacific Life Open.

It's great to be a young, talented athlete, unless your sport has a habit of eating its young.

Barbadillo said Nadal's public image isn't likely to change anytime soon because there isn't much of a filter there in the first place. "We let him be himself, we guide him to be himself," said the former ATP communications staffer. "We want him to show his passion and not change. The strategy is based on the reality."

In 2003, before anyone outside of Mallorca had heard of Nadal, astronomers at an observatory on the island discovered an asteroid and named it after him (listed as 128036 Rafaelnadal on the official registry). It's an interesting honor. Some asteroids have long lives in space and some fall to earth in a bright, blazing path. Nadal, approaching 21, throws off a lot of light and heat, but there's no indication he's a mere shooting star.

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.