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.”
With sport and education as its fundamental cornerstones, the Rafa Nadal Foundation recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. “Hopefully we will be able to continue growing,” Nadal said in 2016. “That’s what we have been doing in the last few years. We’ve been doing it progressively, slowly, but trying to do things right and reach as many kids as possible.”
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.”