Rafael Nadal: Closing the Gap To Become Tennis' Most Influential Star

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Rafael Nadal: Closing the Gap To Become Tennis' Most Influential Star
(Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

Roger Federer has been holding the ropes for a long time.  

Despite traditional Swiss secrecy, it is clear that he has consistently topped the tennis money list with an estimated 2008 annual income of $35.1 million from tournaments and endorsements.  He is ranked 11th on Sports Illustrated’s 2008 ranking of the top 50 earners in sports.

According to insiders, No. 1 player Rafael Nadal didn't make the cut last year, making approximately $15 million from on and off court activities. Despite claiming his fourth French Open title, the Wimbledon Championship, and the 2008 Olympic Singles Gold in Beijing, not to mention other ATP Tour tournament titles, he's not up with the big ones just yet.  

In at least one rivalry with Federer—earning power—he's the one currently lagging behind.  

Nevertheless, this could be the catalytic year of change—both on and off court—for this rivalry.  After winning his first Wimbledon title and the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, Nadal signed deals with three corporate sponsors—including Mapfre SA, Spain’s largest insurer—bringing his endorsement total to nine. 

As he achieves more and more victories, he lures bigger sponsors. He counts L’Oreal SA, Banco Espanol de Credito, Inter Parfums Inc., and Babolat, among others.

It is not just in national markets where his brand is being developed. Marketers consistently use Nadal for promotions in Spain. But now Nike Inc, which is also the main sponsor for Federer, is repackaging him for a broader international audience. 

From last year's US Open and officially from January this year, Nike has removed the pirate pants and sleeveless tops that have formerly been synonymous with the Spaniard, replacing them with more traditional shorts and polo tops.  

Nadal is uniquely marketable due to his symbiosis of humility and warrior-like power.  Off court, his long locks, brown eyes, and shy nature entice journalists and fans. On court, his explosions of power and strength mesmerize hardcore sports nuts. He is a safe rebel—the right mixture of ruggedness and respect.  

He has a connection with the youth of today with his high intensity and cool, youthful image. During practices, the sounds of his shots and his grunts echo throughout the stadia and across the courts. He attracts a crowd wherever he goes.  

Nadal is on his way to becoming a truly global brand. If he can continue in the same victorious manner for many years, then he will be the new Federer and David Beckham with his worldwide appeal and sporting successes.  

This is in direct contrast to his humble professional tennis beginnings. In his breakout year as a professional in 2005, Nadal won the Mercedes Cup final in Stuttgart, Germany, and with it a $50,000 Mercedes SLK 200 Kompressor car. To celebrate, he climbed his sweat-soaked body into the car and drove it a few yards.  

Just like Nadal’s tennis life, his income is also a family affair. Nadal lets his father, Sebastian, manage his money with the help of a financial adviser. 

The product of a modest, close-knit family, Nadal is taking a disciplined approach to his earning potential.  

He comes from a family of small-business owners. His family owns companies ranging from windows and restaurants to cafes and schools, all based in and around the island of Mallorca. Rafael intends to invest predominantly in real estate, hotels, bars, and restaurants.    

Nevertheless, he is adamant that the game of tennis and winning tournaments is most important. This should place him in a good standing for the coming years of dominance.  

Nadal refuses to let endorsements distract him from improving his game. He has already stated that too many endorsements mean too many training days away from the court—more work in an already jam-packed, 11-month season.  

Still, Federer will not let his title slip by so quickly. Speaking Swiss German, German, French, and English, he is a valuable commodity in a truly global sport. Famed for his fashion sense as well as his artistic tennis style, he has become good friends with the likes of Anna Wintour, editor of US Vogue, and has secured endorsements from Rolex, Gillette, Mercedes, and NetJets.  

He also maintains a traditional image, liking to keep links to his native country though endorsements with Swiss companies. He is currently ambassador for the likes of Jura, Nationale Suisse, and Rolex.  

Of course, the international sponsorship market—especially for long-term, blue-chip deals—is flat at the moment. Despite possible injuries, everyone knows that Nadal is a dependable entity who will return wholly advantageous results.  

Babolat has recently signed a 10-year deal with him; Nike is also banking on many more years with Nadal.

He is also maturing—his coach has allowed him one guilty pleasure, a $270,000 Aston Martin DBS, the same car driven by Daniel Craig's James Bond in the recent movies. 

With his combination of a modest family, athleticism, youth, and humility, Nadal will shatter many more records. 

Soon, he may be the No. 1 tennis moneymaker as well as No. 1 in world rankings when the time is right.

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