Rafa Nadal and Uncle Toni, one last time at Roland-Garros
As a child, Rafael Nadal believed his uncle Toni had magical powers. At family gatherings, his father and grandfather played along with a ruse that the local tennis coach was invisible, convincing young Rafa that he alone could see the man already putting the seven-year-old through his paces on the court.
Soon, Toni Nadal will again disappear from view. Shortly after the Australian Open, the 57-year-old confirmed that 2017 will be his last season coaching the 14-time Grand Slam champion, something he kept secret from his nephew while he said his farewells in Melbourne. With Carlos Moya joining Nadal’s team last December, Toni’s next trick will be to nurture the next generation of Spanish talent at the Rafa Nadal Academy that opened last October in Mallorca.
“The relationship with my nephew has always been excellent, in all these years we have never had periods of crisis,” Toni Nadal told reporters in February, leaving Rafa in the hands of Moya, Francisco Roig, his agent and father after 27 years in charge. “The truth is that every year I am making fewer decisions, to the point that I won’t be deciding anything anymore.”
To say Toni Nadal has been influential in Nadal’s tennis career is to define understatement. It was the brother of Spanish national footballer Miguel Angel Nadal who began working with Rafa from the age of three on the clay courts of Manacor, Mallorca. He trained the naturally right-handed youngster to play left-handed, recognising the potential to be deadly off both wings. And he drilled a keen sense of discipline and desire so deep into Nadal’s psyche that his competitive genius is renowned and revered by athletes and fans of every sport.
Not that the partnership has always been easy. “I owe a lot to Toni, but he also owes a lot to me,” Rafael wrote in his 2011 autobiography, where he delved into the often complicated dynamic. “There’s a fine balance in the tension that my uncle’s presence in my life creates. Usually, as the record shows, it’s been a positive, creative tension. Sometimes he doesn’t measure his words well and the effect is to sour, rather than to enhance, my mood, which in turn impacts my game.
“What I never lose sight of is that, on balance, that tension benefits my game. Nor do I forget that he wouldn’t generate such a response in me, be it for good or for bad, if I didn’t feel a tremendous respect for him.
No coach has led a man to more Grand Slam titles than Toni Nadal – Lennart Bergelin, who coached Björn Borg, guided the Swede to 11 majors between 1974 and 1981. But it is now three years since Nadal’s last Grand Slam victory at Roland-Garros, also his last final showdown on Philippe-Chatrier Court. Injuries, confidence issues, and the rise of Novak Djokovic – one of only two men to defeat Nadal in 74 matches in Paris – have each played their part.
Change, in the form of Moya’s arrival, has proven effective. Ranked No.4 on the ATP rankings, Nadal arrives at Roland-Garros leading the tour’s Race to London after claiming three titles from six finals, including his first Grand Slam final in almost three years at the Australian Open. The 30-year-old has already made history during this clay-court season, becoming the first player to win 10 titles at an ATP event at Monte-Carlo, before repeating the feat in Barcelona and claiming a record-equalling 30th Masters crown in Madrid.
An unprecedented third ‘Decima’ at Roland-Garros would be a fitting finale for Rafa and Toni on the surface they have dominated like no player-coach partnership in history, and a testament to the impact of Moya – once his idol, later his Davis Cup teammate, now his coach – in this recent resurgence.
“You cannot change a 14-time Grand Slam champion when he is 30 years old, but he can evolve,” Moya said shortly after he began working with Nadal. Wholesale changes were never part of his plan, but he has brought in ideas first trialled with Milos Raonic – his previous charge – to shake up Nadal’s practice regime.
“I owe a lot to Toni, but he also owes a lot to me.”
“I believe a lot in specifics training,” Moya told El Espanol after joining Nadal’s team. “It’s something I used with Raonic, and adapting a lot of those exercises to Nadal is important because they are completely distinct players. We want to focus a lot on the repetition of what you have to do in matches.”
For Nadal, Moya’s arrival has prompted evolution rather than revolution. Plus ça change, perhaps. But Moya has praised Nadal for his open-mindedness and sacrifices when presented with new ideas.
“I think I’ve been working well,” Nadal acknowledged in Madrid. “I’ve done things the way they should be done, the way I think they should have been done. I try to do things the best possible way, on the court or off the court, without doing anything crazy. What I care about is being happy – I try to do things that make me happy.
“But I think that I’ve been working the right way for quite a long time. Right now the results are there, and that gives me more motivation to keep on doing things. Tomorrow I’ll wake up with joy, and I will want to do things even better. It’s the joy that keeps you going, that keeps you alive.
“At the end of the day, training for training’s sake is dull. You don’t want to do that. But you need the motivation to do things better, to change some small detail. That’s what keeps you motivated to keep on going, day after day.”
It is tempting to imagine Nadal using his uncle’s final appearance as his coach at Roland-Garros as extra motivation to claim his Grand Slam Decima. Perhaps he will. But whatever the outcome, whatever the reasons in 2017, Toni Nadal’s role in his phenomenal nephew’s success already puts him among the greatest coaches the game has ever seen.
At next year’s tournament, we won’t see him. But Rafa will.
Posted on May 24, 2017, in tennis and tagged France, King Of Clay, La Decima, Paris, Rafa Nadal, Rafael Nadal, Roland Garros, Roland Garros 2017, Sport, tennis, Toni Nadal. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.