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The Business of Tennis
The King's Empire: Rafael Nadal’s ambition extends well beyond the terre battue
Manacor was once famous for its pearl factory and wooden furniture industry. Now, it’s an international tennis destination that’s better known as the birthplace of a legend—and the home base of his ever-growing business empire.
Published May 18, 2022
Long before Rafael Nadal set out to bring a world-class tennis complex to Manacor, Spain, there was already a sporting facility that bore his last name: the Polideportivo Miguel Angel Nadal. Named after his uncle, a former FC Barcelona and Spanish National Team soccer player, it is an ode to the town’s once-most famous athlete.
The Nadal name has a history in Manacor, a small municipality of roughly 44,000 people on the island of Mallorca that has stood in place since the 14th century, famous for its pearl factory and wooden furniture industry. Now, it’s an international tennis destination that’s better known as the birthplace of a tennis legend.
Many top players end up relocating as their tennis careers—and bank accounts—outgrow their humble hometowns, in favor of financially beneficial places like Monte Carlo or Dubai, or tennis enclaves like South Florida or Barcelona for year-round training opportunities. Nadal has had plenty of chances to do the same.
But 21 Grand Slam singles titles and more than $128 million in prize money later, the 35-year-old does more than just call Manacor home: he has transformed it into the home base of his ever-growing business empire.
Pondering his legacy
Nadal announced his ambitious plans to build an international tennis school in his hometown back in 2011, with the goal of making Manacor a benchmark for the rest of the sports world. But it wasn’t until a year later when, with a bit of help from the city council, the project kicked into high gear.
The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous. As Nadal planned for life after tennis and pondered his legacy, the idea of his possible retirement suddenly seemed more immediate than ever before. Persistent tendinitis in Nadal’s knees had flared up again, abruptly derailing the world No. 2’s 2012 season. From the dizzying heights of winning his seventh Roland Garros title—surpassing the record held by Bjorn Borg—he crashed back to earth after being upset in the second round of Wimbledon by Lukas Rosol. Nadal was forced to withdraw from the London Olympics, and then shut down his season after the tendinitis was diagnosed as a torn patellar tendon. He didn’t compete again until February 2013.
While Nadal himself was firm that he had no plans to retire, he admitted that his days were numbered as injuries took their toll.
“I don’t know how long I will keep playing tennis,” he said at the time. “I’ll be 31 in five years and taking into account the fact that I started at 16… Perhaps stopping now will help extend my career a little bit more.
“Until I had the problems with the knee again, the final at Roland Garros, had been one of the best seasons of my life. I felt able to win any competition. Complicated times came later.”
Those complicated times have always been a theme for Nadal, who has missed as many major tournaments due to various injuries as his Big Three rivals combined: 11 since his Grand Slam debut in 2003. During that same period, Roger Federer has missed nine, all after 2016 since undergoing knee surgery (after which he regularly skipped Roland Garros in an attempt to minimize strain on the joint) and Novak Djokovic only two.
Improbably, Nadal has fought his way back each time to reach the pinnacle of the sport. He now stands alone atop the list of men’s Grand Slam singles champions, with 21 major titles after winning his second Australian Open this year.
Only a few weeks earlier, Grand Slam glory seemed far away for Nadal. He had once again shut down a season after sustaining a foot injury in the 2021 Roland Garros semifinals. While the Spaniard’s fervently loyal fanbase has become accustomed to these sudden and sometimes lengthy layoffs, this one seemed different: it was due to a worrying flare-up of Nadal’s rare congenital foot condition, Mueller-Weiss Syndrome.
“One month and a half ago, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to be back on the tour playing tennis again,” Nadal told the Melbourne crowd during the trophy ceremony. “And today, I am here in front of all of you having this trophy with me and you really don’t know how much I fought to be here.”
Building his academy
As someone who has had to be keenly aware of his own mortality since being diagnosed with a degenerative condition in 2005, Nadal has been planning for life after tennis for practically his whole career.
He launched the Rafa Nadal Foundation in 2008, with the goal of using sport as a vehicle for improving lives, and later opened his first tennis school in Anantapur, India in 2010. Using that experience as a blueprint, Nadal set out to create the Rafa Nadal Academy as he solidified his legacy in Spanish sport, on Spanish soil.
Inaugurated in 2014, the Academy is now a sprawling 18-acre complex that contains 45 tennis courts—23 hard, 22 clay— as well as a soccer field, padel and squash courts, swimming pools, a fitness center, spa and more. The world-class facilities have drawn the likes of Casper Ruud, Grigor Dimitrov, Naomi Osaka and other top players to Manacor for pre-season or training sessions.
Also on the grounds is the bilingual Rafa Nadal International School, which welcomes primary and secondary school students, while top chefs serve up custom menus at the complex’s restaurants and cafe. Tourists can even stay at the Rafa Nadal Sports Centre’s rooms, with breakfast included during their stay in Mallorca.
When Nadal returned to Manacor from Melbourne, the Australian Open trophy went straight to the Rafa Nadal Museum, taking its place alongside other artifacts from his storied career. The museum doubles as a Nadal fan’s ultimate pilgrimage site, drawing visitors from around the world.
“My future is here. I don’t imagine myself living away from Mallorca,” Nadal said during the Academy’s inauguration. ”I’d like to make this a center of tennis for everyone around the world.”
Nadal’s sphere of influence has only continued to expand since. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of all the things that bear his name, or benefit from his impact.
The Rafa Nadal Tour is a multi-city junior circuit launched in 2014, with a young Alejandro Davidovich Fokina becoming its first champion in the U-15 category. There’s also the Rafa Nadal Open, an ATP Challenger Tour event, which was a stop on Andy Murray’s comeback from hip surgery in 2019. The WTA and ATP tours have both featured Mallorca grass-court tournaments on their calendars—Sofia Kenin and Daniil Medvedev have lifted its trophies—with uncle Toni Nadal serving as tournament director.
Such has been Nadal’s impact, on and off the court, that they’re running out of ways to honor him at home: in Manacor, there’s a petition circulating to either “erect a statue or rename an avenue” after Rafa, while in Mallorca there’s a social media campaign to rename the international airport in its capital, Palma.
The mayor of Manacor
While the Academy and its rapid growth have come to be synonymous with Manacor, not everyone is pleased. Its mayor, Miquel Oliver, broke rank in 2019 when he called out the Nadal family for “a la carte urban planning” and using their weight in local government to bypass the usual approval channels for the project.
After construction stalled for more than a year as it struggled to obtain city council approval to build on rustic land, the Balearic Islands regional government abruptly approved Ley 5/2012. ‘Rustic’ land, by Spanish definition, is not zoned for development, and the process for reclassifying it is rarely simple. Especially so for the Academy site, which flanks one of the oldest buildings in Manacor: Torre dels Enagistes, a historic 13th century fortress that now houses a museum.
Ley 5/2012 cut through the red tape and fast-tracked the building of “a world-class international tennis center in Manacor,” declaring the project to be of “urgent regional interest”—thus allowing Nadal to skip the usual fees, environmental studies and years of delay.
Later on, when the Academy ran into trouble converting its sports residences for tourist use, the law was tweaked again. As a result of the controversial “Nadal Amendment,” as it is derisively called in Manacor, the Academy could now operate as a hotel as well as expand to nearly double its footprint, to the ire of the island’s environmental groups.
Residents and small business owners in Manacor have also found it increasingly difficult to compete with their world-class, internationally renowned neighbor and its deep pockets. Oliver pointed to Manacor’s struggling municipal services as an example.
“The municipal swimming pool may not open next summer due to competition from the Nadal Sports Center,” he told El Confidencial in 2019. “There are gyms that have had to dedicate themselves to giving judo classes, because the clientele was leaving them.”
But the Nadals point to another figure: the Academy employs more than 350 people and counting, a number set to grow as the expansion project reaches its completion—not to mention the countless more indirect jobs it creates for local companies that work on the project. Many of the facilities are open for Manacori citizens to use and enjoy, and now the town’s tourism industry is no longer bound by the changing seasons, as the Nadal name brings in visitors year-round.
“This academy project could have been located in several places in the world where we were offered important benefits and a lot of facilities. But though it was a higher economic cost, I wanted to do it in my home, in Manacor,” Nadal wrote in an open letter, replying to Oliver’s comments.
After 24 years in service, the municipal swimming pool finally went under in 2021 when the company tasked with its maintenance declared bankruptcy. Residents have asked the town to keep providing this service, but it balked on its hefty 42,000 euros-per-year cost.
“There are already two private swimming pools that work well, and I don’t know to what extent it would be lawful to compete with them,” city council member Joan Gaià told Diario de Mallorca.
The Rafa Nadal Sports Centre now boasts an outdoor pool and a 25-meter semi-Olympic swimming pool, and is set to complete its latest expansion project at the end of the year. The city’s pool has been permanently closed for a year, but it may soon make its own comeback from the brink of retirement—as a multipurpose cultural venue.
The King of Clay
Bullish determination and an ability to weather any storm has come to define Nadal’s legacy on and off the court, and it will surely be on display once again as the tennis calendar approaches Roland Garros.
For years, no matter how bad the injuries or how long the odds, Nadal always seemed to find a way to rally in Paris. It’s what earned him the nickname King of Clay—a moniker that now feels inadequate as Nadal’s dominance extended to all surfaces.
But it wasn’t always the case. As a teenager, his Grand Slam debut was supposed to take place at Roland Garros—however, in what would quickly become a theme in Nadal’s career, it was delayed due to injury. Elbow pain kept him out of Paris in 2003, and a stress fracture in his left ankle sidelined him the next year.
By the time he finally stepped onto Court Philippe-Chatrier for the first time in 2005, he was already the tournament favorite after racking up 17 clay-court wins in a row. Despite his inexperience, Nadal never seemed cowed by the big stage, and he celebrated his 19th birthday with a victory over Federer in the semifinals. Two days later, Nadal lifted his first Coupe des Mousquetaires.
Even then, the joy of victory was short-lived: a few months later, the stubborn foot pain Nadal had struggled with all season would be diagnosed as Muller-Weiss. Faced with the choice between early retirement and a career possibly filled with pain management and injury, Nadal would pick the latter.
“When I won, I thought at that time that it was the biggest thing I would achieve in my career,” Nadal reflected years later. “Now, I’m going to play with peace of mind, I’m going to play more relaxed for the rest of my career.
“But I was completely mistaken. The years go by and you’re nervous for all of them. In all of them you want to play well, you want to have a chance to keep on winning and, honestly, the peace of mind that I thought winning Roland Garros would give me was fleeting.”
Nadal has managed to recapture those fleeting emotions 13 times across his career, shattering records in the process. A statue in his honor now stands in front of the public entrance to Stade Roland Garros—a rare honor for an active player, and even rarer for one who isn’t French.
After a 20–0 start to this season, Nadal once again emerged as the clear favorite to lift another trophy in Paris. A stress fracture in his rib, which sidelines him into the clay-court season, has thrown a wrench in the works. Should he recover in time, Nadal would have only weeks to prepare for a potential Roland Garros campaign.
But it wouldn’t be the first time an injury threatens to derail his plans, as he aims to add a 22nd Grand Slam title to his name—and to his museum’s ever-expanding collection.
Of course, the numbers are just amazing, no? But I can’t think about that now, honestly. Let’s talk about that when I finish my career. Rafael Nadal
And you thought 13 Roland Garros titles was impressive?
Prize Money: $128,337,592*
- The third-highest ATP prize money leader, after Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer
- *As of May 16, 2022
Endorsements: Approx. $26,000,000 per year*, according to Forbes
- Sponsors: Nike, Babolat, Richard Mille, Kia Motors, Mapfre, Santander, Telefonica, Amstel Ultra and Cantabria Labs
- Agent: Carlos Costa
- *As of June 3, 2020
Appearance Fees: $1 million
- Nadal can command over seven figures in appearance fees per tournament, according to Forbes
Love for the game, passion, positive attitude, and working spirit. That’s all, no? And the right people next to me helping every single day. Rafael Nadal
How Rafa keeps his business empire in the family.
Sebastian Nadal (Father)
- Vice-President - Rafa Nadal Foundation, Board of Directors - Growth Inversiones (investment firm)
Ana Maria Parera (Mother)
- President - Rafa Nadal Foundation, Sole Administrator - Aspermir (investment firm)
Maribel Nadal (Sister)
- Marketing & Sales - Rafa Nadal Academy
Toni Nadal (Uncle)
- Head of Rafa Nadal Academy, Tournament Director - ATP Mallorca Championships/WTA Mallorca Open (until 2019)
Maria Francisca Perello (Wife)
- Director - Rafa Nadal Foundation
Rafael Nadal Sr. (Uncle)
- Regional Deputy, Partido Popular (PP) - Manacor City Council