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—Profile by Tim Blanks. Photographs by Kava Gorna.
How do you persuade the world's top two tennis players to take to the court outside their hectic schedules? It's easy when you're Natalia Vodianova. The persuasive supermodel and philanthropist invited a group of her closest friends and supporters of her charity, the Naked Heart Foundation, to witness a private match between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the NHF on Saturday. Due to injury, Djokovic had to sit out at the last minute, which was unfortunate because he gave Vodianova the idea in the first place.
The story began at last July's Love Ball, when the current world No. 2 Djokovic bid on a lot for a tennis lesson with the world No. 1 Rafael Nadal, much to the room's delight. "The bidding had started to stagnate around 70,000 euros, but then suddenly Novak stood up and shouted, '100,000!'" Vodianova remembered. "It was a magical moment. Everyone just screamed with surprise." His bid prompted auctioneer James Corden to propose turning the match into doubles, which led to the winning bid from Alexander Medvedev, commissioner of the Kontinental Hockey League, and, nine months later, to a tennis match and a celebratory cocktail at the palatial home of the Lavazza family, high in the hills above Monaco.
Nadal took his rival's move in good humor. "I thought it was great when I heard he bid for it! It was good fun, and I'm very happy to support Natalia and her foundation." But the road to glory isn't always smooth, as any tennis champ will tell you. "Last night I began to have a very bad feeling," said a pregnant Vodianova—so pregnant, in fact, that her doctor had made the journey from Paris with her in case of emergency. "You know that feeling where something is badly wrong? And then I got a call early in the morning, saying that Novak had injured himself. Of course I had a small panic attack! And I was absolutely heartbroken by it, but then this morning we found a very noble replacement for Novak in Mikhail Youzhny."
Youzhny and Medvedev vied against Nadal and a friend of Medvedev's for an hour, to applause from guests including Princess Charlene of Monaco, Pierre Casiraghi, Antoine Arnault, Lucy Yeomans, and Djokovic himself, who came by to wish the players well before the match. "Novak did say, 'When I am better, I will come back and play,' but there is nothing he can do right now. There's not much a tennis player can do without his right hand!" Vodianova sighed courtside after Nadal's side triumphed over Youzhny's. "But maybe they can meet again—we can repeat the match here next year with Novak and turn this into an annual event!"