$500,000 watch deal sums up changing face of brand Nadal

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The Independent Online

Some things you can never change. Rafael Nadal appears to have been the subject of a major image makeover in the last year, but his time-keeping is as bad as ever. The Spaniard invited the world's press to a sponsorship announcement at a swish hotel here yesterday only to turn up nearly an hour late. "I'm sorry for the delay but for once it wasn't my fault," a sheepish Nadal said following the late arrival of his flight from Majorca.

To add to the world No 2's embarrassment, the press conference had been called to publicise his new deal with Richard Mille, makers of luxury Swiss watches. Starting with the French Open, which begins here on Sunday, Nadal will wear a specially designed lightweight watch, only 50 of which will go on sale. The watches, which use aerospace technology, will each cost $535,000 (about £375,000).

Few players wear watches during matches – although plenty put them on before they leave the court in order to satisfy sponsors – but Nadal has worked with Richard Mille to produce an ultra lightweight model. The watch weighs just 20 grams, including the strap. The Spaniard, who is naturally right-handed but plays left-handed, will wear it on his right wrist during matches and on his left away from the court.

Both Nadal and his entourage deny there has been a conscious decision to rebrand him, but the image of the ordinary young man who lives at home with his family, plays golf with his friends and shuns a celebrity lifestyle appears to be changing rapidly.

Nadal, 23, has been with two of his main sponsors, Nike and Babolat, since he was 13, while his other backers are mostly middle-of-the road organisations: Kia, the Balearic Islands tourist board, Banesto (a bank), Mapfre (an insurance company) and Quely biscuits. Associating himself with swish watches – not to mention his deal with Lanvin fragrances as the face of "L'Homme Sport" – is on another level entirely.

The change last year from his trademark sleeveless shirts and three-quarter length "pirata" shorts to more conventional kit was one sign of a new Nadal, while his recent appearance in a music video cuddling up to the Colombian singer Shakira was a far cry from his boy-next-door image.

Carlos Costa, Nadal's agent, insists there has been no deliberate rebranding. "He has grown up a lot, with things like the changes in his kit and now associating himself with Richard Mille watches," Costa said. "It's just evolution. When you're a kid you like one kind of watch. When you grow up you like something different."

Nadal agreed. "For me nothing changes," he said. "Wearing such a special watch is a pleasure, but it won't change me."

Since beating Roger Federer in the final of the Madrid Masters last weekend – his 15th win in 15 clay-court matches this year – Nadal has been at home in Majorca, playing golf and preparing for Roland Garros. He said his knees, which had caused him problems in the past and contributed to his defeat by Robin Soderling here a year ago, were in good shape and he felt confident.

Andy Murray arrived in the French capital on Wednesday night and played an exhibition match yesterday at the Paris Golf and Country Club, beating Mardy Fish 7-6, 6-7, 11-9 (champions' tie-break). His right knee, which has caused him problems in the past, was sore, but Murray said he was confident that all would well by the start of the French Open.