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Tennis player Rafael Nadal says during a press conference that he will not compete in the French Open, at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Manacor, on Mallorca, Spain, on May 18. The 22-time Grand Slam winner has battled to recover from a hip injury he sustained in January at the Australian Open, not playing since then.JAIME REINA/AFP/Getty Images

Cryogenic chambers, German gene therapy and careers that never end are so 2019. These days, what the cool kids are into is victory laps, playing footsie with your fans and being famous forever.

With that in mind, Rafael Nadal triple-barrelled his news on Thursday.

First, Nadal will skip the coming French Open. He hasn’t played since bombing out of the Australian Open in January, so that wasn’t a shocker. Still, it’s the first time he’s missed his personal major in 19 years, so it’s newsworthy.

Second, he’s taking most of the rest of the year off to recover from injury.

“I have no intention of continuing to play for the next few months,” Nadal said. So no French, no Wimbledon and, depending on your definition of “few,” no U.S. Open.

Third, he’s quitting. Kind of. Well, maybe.

Nadal turns 37 in a couple of weeks. He said he’s taking time off this season so that he has “an opportunity to enjoy next year.”

Then he tossed off, “That’s probably going to be my last year in the professional tour.”

Before anybody could react to that bombshell, Nadal was already hedging: “I can’t say 100 per cent that it’s going to be like this, because you never know what’s going to happen.”

So the headline is “Rafael Nadal Announces Retirement at Some Imminent, Yet Indeterminate, Future Point Because You Never Know What’s Going to Happen.”

Across the sports media world, everyone’s talking about Nadal retiring. That’s not what happened. Instead, Nadal relieved himself of the pressure to retire, because now he is in a permanent state of retiring, whether he retires or not.

Nadal has become the last man standing at your dinner party. You’ve managed to get him as far as the front hallway, but he’s planted himself there. He’s got his coat in his hands, and just remembered that he wanted to tell you one more story. Is he ever going? Theoretically. But we have yet to see that theory in practice.

One other notable thing about this ‘announcement’ – Nadal did it at his tennis academy in Malaga. The mood was very ‘new CEO charms stakeholders.’

Nadal was up on a stage in jeans that looked like he’d been dropped into from a great height. He looked tanned and commanding. The screen behind him was branded “by Movistar” – a Spanish telecom giant.

This was less John McEnroe and more Jeff Bezos. Here’s a guy setting up his next act, while taking advantage of a few million dollars in free advertising. It was the move of a seasoned media operator.

Same work, less pay for women. Welcome to tennis in 2023

Athletes generally, and tennis players in particular, are no longer contract workers. They are conglomerates. As long as they’re good enough, tennis (or car-racing or soccer) is one part of their portfolio. There’s also a sponsorship division, a branding division and a business-development division.

In your 20s, you establish yourself as a player. In your 30s, you establish your business. The goal is slowly reducing your reliance on sports as a marketing and revenue stream, while you amp up everything else.

This can’t be done all at once. You can’t be all in on winning Grand Slams one day and then trying to figure out how to get your tennis-court clay comped the next. You need years to transition.

That’s what retirement announcements have become. A signal to the market that you’re disrupting your own business.

Roger Federer led the way in this regard. He was functionally retired long before he actually retired. For the past few years of his career, he only played the Slams he thought he had an outside chance of winning. Whenever he needed a media boost, he knew he could show up and hint around retiring, without doing it.

In the interim, he transitioned from tennis guy to professionally suave guy. Now long gone, he still promotes everything from clothing (Uniqlo) to Champagne (Moët & Chandon) to luggage (Rimowa). The last few years he was on tour proved Federer didn’t need to play tennis in order to provide value as a brand ambassador.

Serena Williams did the same thing. By the time she was peace-ing out at the U.S. Open last year, she was more keen to talk about her new venture-capital business than recap her tennis war stories.

This is the new legendary sports career – a career so great that it never needs to end. Long after you stop playing, you are still a player.

No wonder Nadal wants to spin this last stage out for as long as possible. He isn’t as well practised a salesperson as Federer or Williams. While they were laying the groundwork for their postcareer careers, Nadal was too busy busting his hump in rehab. He wasted a lot of time trying to be healthy enough to play tennis.

Having reached cruising altitude, that’s what he’ll do for a while – cruise. Nadal just bought himself 18 months.

There’s no way he’s leaving without playing in one more Wimbledon, or one more Olympics. But wouldn’t it be perfect if he left right after winning a final French Open? So that means Roland Garros 2025 at the earliest. We could be talking two years from now.

If that happens, some people will complain that Nadal has become one of those classic rock acts that goes out on its “final tour” once every few years.

With that in mind, Nadal was already laying out his retort.

“I don’t deserve to end like this,” he said in Spanish. “I’ve worked hard enough throughout my career for my end not to be in a press conference.”

Like most things in life, ‘deserve’ has nothing to do with it. You grab what you can.

As of right now, no one in history grabbed more from their careers than Nadal. His 22 Grand Slams (he’s tied with Novak Djokovic) won’t stand as a record. But one suspects that long after that number has fallen, Nadal will still be a name people recognize and, more important, be willing to pay to get next to.

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