Resurfaced: How Uncle Toni’s Tough Love Shaped Rafa
Editor’s Note: But for the COVID-19 pandemic, Roland Garros would now be underway. During the next two weeks ATPTour.com will look back on memorable matches and happenings at the clay-court Grand Slam, which tournament organisers are now hoping to stage in September. This story was originally published on 5 June 2018.
“&*#!!” curses Toni Nadal.
Interrupt Toni when he is in task mode and the oaths fly out of his mouth like hot sparks from a blacksmith’s anvil. It is important to understand that Toni does not curse casually, nor as a form of insult, rather of exasperation.
In this particular case, it is the frustration of being delayed and quite possibly missing a flight from Palma de Mallorca to Madrid. We are at the entrance of the Rafael Nadal Tennis Academy in Manacor, and the airport is nearly an hour’s drive away. I am but one of a handful of obstacles keeping Toni from getting to the airport on time.
Standing aside, I watch Toni multi-task. He answers phone calls, signs papers, buttons his dress shirt, ties his leather shoes, and wrestles my oversize travel bag into the back of his two-door Mercedes SLC Roadster. Eventually, the retractable hardtop comes down, my bag goes in and we are ready to go. I briefly consider suggesting a hands-free apparatus for his phone, but then I realise that Toni Nadal is anything but hands-free.
Finally we are on our way. Toni looks at his watch and utters one last ‘&*#!!’. But this curse is different, a bit softer, more of a slow, drawn out sigh of relief. Leaving the academy, Toni drives through a mix of newly paved roads, narrow cobblestone alleys and a couple of roundabouts that he accelerates out of with the grace, speed, and confidence one would expect from Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso. As if on cue, the phone finally stops ringing just as Toni hits the Ma-15 highway.
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“One time I have a big discussion with Pato Clavet,” Toni begins. “Pato believes it is his job to make sure his player has everything in order to play his best; racquets perfect, water, balls, and like this. And I say, ‘this is not my opinion.’ If Rafa forgets his water, I say, ‘Well, it is your problem, today you don’t drink water.’ My work is not to bring water. Do you want to be a professional coach or a waiter?”
Our route to the airport takes us through the heart of Mallorca, where windmills that used to grind grain and pump water cast long shadows over fields that produce almond, fig and olive trees in great abundance. Restaurants fortified with heavy brick barbeque grills and wood-fired ovens look like they were built to feed legions of Roman soldiers. Meals are peasant food soaked in olive oil and portions are big enough to last for days. While Barcelona may very well be the cradle of Spanish tennis, it is here on the island of Mallorca, part of Spain’s autonomous zone, that lie the clues to how the world’s most successful tennis coach was formed.
“The relationship between player and coach is very important,” Toni continues as if some subterranean fire has been stoked inside of him. “Also it is the education that the player gets at home. My family formed my character. My father did not talk too much, but you see what he has done and I learned my character from his example.”
There can be no doubt where Toni Nadal’s demarcation line is drawn: respect for people.
“In this life, respect is very important as it should come from the younger to the older persons,” Toni says. “Not the other way around. Unbelievable the way the young today behave not showing respect. &*#!!!”
Like the great Carthaginian General Hannibal, who was born here in the Balearic Islands, Toni commands by both example and charisma. Just as Hannibal was fueled by a single-minded purpose in defeating Rome, so too has been Toni’s intense focus on forming his nephew.
With each military victory, Hannibal’s legend grew, and so too did Toni Nadal’s opinions gain merit with every Grand Slam Rafa won. While the amount of trophies they have collected together is impressive, equally so is that neither Toni nor Rafa fell victim to a trap as old as time. A trap that has tripped many a successful man – hubris.
“What I remember most about Toni from my time on Tour was how kind he was to people,” remembers Peter Lundgren, former coach of Roger Federer and other ATP World Tour stars. ”He was always very polite.”
Juan Manual Esparcia of Spain, another ATP World Tour coach, has observed Toni and Rafa rise to greatness from the beginning.
“Toni puts great emphasis on the education of strong values,” says Esparcia. “Rafa’s attitude to overcome the many adversities he has had to face and doing so in the most gracious manner, the example that Rafa Nadal gives to everyone every day, not only as a professional, but as a person, has Toni’s philosophy written all over it.”
Jack Reader, former coach of Viktor Troicki and Alexandr Dolgolopov, echoes a similar opinion.
“We often practised with Rafa,” says Reader. “And I never once saw Toni say something to Rafa that Rafa did not immediately acknowledge. I don’t know what Toni would say, but I do know that from the outside theirs seemed a relationship built on absolute respect and trust.”
Toni recalls: “I have said to Rafa, ‘In my opinion you have to do this, but make what you want’… Do you think that I like to see my nephew’s forehand follow-through wrapping his racquet around his head? Many times I say to him about the biomechanics and physics of a tennis stroke. If you want to put the ball there, then the arm goes here. But make what you want; it is your problem. It is your responsibility.”
At heart Toni is a professor. And like any good teacher, he is an astute student. However, his form of communicating is not for the sensitive type.
“Normally when you are not stupid you can learn,” Toni declares. “I have watched the greatest players in the world on the practice court and in competition. In this life, when you know that you are not the best and if you want to defeat the best you must be open to new ideas and keep learning to improve.”
A good example is Rafa changing his service grip two days before the start of the 2010 US Open. And then another change to the serve came before the 2016 US Open, where they experimented with more slice and angle. That being said, if after consideration Toni does not agree with something, then you will know it immediately.
“I talk always about to make the things simple,” Toni says. “Today we have a problem that society believes if it is too simple, then it is difficult to earn too much money. I have seen many people talk about analytics. And they forgot to see how is the player with the ball? What is most important is to arrive good to the ball, follow through and have good movements around the court.”
“It is true when you have more information, it is good, but information without the eyes and feeling of the coach is not enough. Many times you cannot see the things that analysts write. For example, the statistics say that you make 10 unforced errors with your backhand today. But maybe that is because your forehand is not right in this moment. A good coach needs to observe with his eyes on the situation, not just numbers on a paper.”
Agree or disagree with Toni, he is very consistent on the subject of eliminating excuses.
“I was disappointed at Wimbledon in 2013,” Toni admits. “My nephew lost to Steve Darcis. Rafa says to me that he can do nothing as he has knee problems. I say, ‘No, I don’t agree. If this match was in the final would you play like this?’ After many years I know it is impossible to win always – it is a part of the game – but let us speak the truth.”
Esparcia says, “I think Toni’s best quality and strength is knowing to analyse the needs in each situation in order to reach the next goal… To give Rafa the right solution at specifically the right moment, and to find the way to motivate him, regardless of the circumstances he might be facing.”
“Another time, in 2006 at the US Open,” Toni remembers, “and my nephew is complaining about the balls, that he cannot give them spin. Every day he is telling me the same. And so I say to Rafael, “OK, I go to the tournament director and see if he can change the balls for you.’ Then Rafael lost to James Blake. I go home to Mallorca and he went to Beijing and wins the tournament with the same balls he lost to Blake. So I ask him how the balls can take your spin in Beijing but not New York?”
There can be no better proof positive of the Pygmalion effect theory than Toni and Rafael Nadal.
“I remember once we were in Barcelona at Carlos Moya’s house,” Toni recalls. “Rafa was 15 or maybe 16, and Carlos says to me, ‘Toni, would you sign your name that in the future that Rafael will be good like Alberto Costa?’ And I say, ‘No, I don’t sign because I believe that Rafael will be better.’ And Carlos Moya was a little surprised. Because immediately he says, ‘Do you sign that in the future Rafael will be like Carlos Moya?’ And I say, ‘OK, yes, because you were No. 1 in the world.’ But I did not sign anything. When I went out of the house with my nephew that night I said to Rafael, ‘You can be better than Carlos Moya, but I do not want to show disrespect to him in his house.’ I knew my nephew was special.”
“For me was always too important to form the player,” Toni continues. “I was always happy when we were on the court and I was able to construct his game.”
Jose Perlas is one of the ATP World Tour’s most recognised coaches. There is not much in professional tennis, Spain or worldwide, that he has not seen.
“In some ways it was a perfect storm,” begins Perlas. “The Nadal family had experience of being athletes at the highest level of sport. Toni knew what it took to be good, and he also knew how much work it took to sustain that level. He was a tennis coach who had very strong opinions and he spoke with great conviction. Then Rafa had all the physical and mental gifts of an exceptional athlete, and the intense hunger to be great. Toni was an extremely dedicated professional coach who understood how to use his authority while assembling a team of experts around Rafa.”
As we enter the airport a journalist and camera crew are assembled and waiting on Toni to arrive. Though Toni may not be on the ATP World Tour any more, he is still in demand. When your pupil has 16 Grand Slams and is considered one of the greatest players in the history of tennis, your opinions matter.
Quite possibly, Toni might be the last of the breed. That species of tennis coach who commands from the frontline while saying what needs to be said without fear of retribution. The coach of yesteryear who demands hard work every day, a good attitude, respect for the game and those people associated with it. And no matter how great the stakes or painful the loss, refuses to make excuses while offering a simple no-frills match analysis. My guess is that Harry Hopman would certainly approve of Toni Nadal.
– Reproduced with permission from Elite Tennis Journal