Rafael Nadal is starting over with his tennis career, and his business affairs.
The 11-time grand slam champion, who returns to competition in Chile today after a seven-month hiatus because of injury, let his contract with management agency IMG Worldwide Inc expire on December 31 last year. He "wanted to set up his own company", said Fernando Soler, head of tennis at New York-based IMG.
Agencies such as IMG typically take a cut of as much as 15 per cent for arranging endorsement deals, according to Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp, a consultancy. Nadal made US$25 million in endorsements last year, according to Forbes magazine, so he may be saving himself as much as US$3.8 million. That's about half of the prize money he made in 2011, his last full season on the men's tour.
"Nadal doesn't need to look for corporate sponsors any more, they will come to find him," Ganis said.
Nadal and 17-time major singles champion Roger Federer, the sport's top moneymaker with annual earnings in deals and prize money of US$52.7 million who left IMG in June last year, are among the fewer than 10 athletes who are so well known they don't need IMG's 130-office global infrastructure to chase down deals, according to Ganis.
Carlos Costa, Nadal's IMG handler for 12 years, is now managing him independently and has started a firm with Nadal's father, Sebastian, German newswire DPA said.
Nadal, 26, has been suffering from a partial torn patella tendon and knee inflammation and has not played since losing in the second round at Wimbledon last June. Nadal, the most dominant clay-courter of his generation with 36 titles including a men's record seven French Open championships, is shunning hard courts for now.
Equipped with a new version of his old Babolat racquet that will give him more power and spin, he'll play doubles with Juan Monaco of Argentina at a tournament in Vina del Mar, Chile, before making his singles return the following day. The former world No1, who missed the London Olympics, the US Open and the Australian Open, will play in Brazil next week and in Mexico the week after that.
Even amid concerns about his knee injury and after dropping three spots to No5 for the first time in eight years while out of action, Nadal remains attractive for endorsements. His fame and his reputation for being helpful with sponsors "counts for a lot", according to Ganis.
Last year, Nadal added online gambling firm PokerStars to a group of sponsors including Nike and carmaker Kia Motors.
In the past seven months, Nadal has been keeping his 11 million fans on Facebook up to date on his recovery almost on a daily basis, with pictures of him working out in the swimming pool, in the gym or on the tennis court.
"His positioning as a sporting superstar is confirmed and won't change, he's one of the all-time greats," said Nigel Currie, director of sports marketing agency brandRapport.
Speaking about his comeback last week, Nadal said it would be "complicated" and his only objective was to come through the next few weeks unscathed.
Federer's agent, Tony Godsick, left IMG last June to handle Federer's affairs independently. The departures of the two top moneymakers in men's tennis was coincidental and "don't mean anything in terms of our commitment to player management", IMG's Soler said.
Referring to IMG, Currie said: "It must be disappointing for them. Traditionally, IMG have been so massive in tennis that they always expected to have the top players in that sport. And if you're working with the top players, their earning potential is absolutely massive. It's a pretty lucrative area."