“And I loved him too, as I still do and always will. I trusted him, and so I knew deep down that he was doing what he thought was best for me.”
As Rafael Nadal gears up to play his last grand slam match with his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, it is difficult to comprehend the contribution of the 56-year-old in his nephew’s illustrious career.
The duo started when Rafa was four years old and had just picked up a tennis racquet at a clubhouse in the sunny town of Manacor in Spain.
24 years, 15 grand slam titles including 10 French opens, 30 ATP 1000s and countless match wins later, the duo stand in the finals of the US open New York bidding for their second grand slam title of the year after an injury ridden 2016 after which the tennis world and media wrote off Rafa for the zillionth time.
What has changed? Nothing.
From making Nadal play on broken courts with bad balls, to making a seven-time grand slam champion go all the way back to get his water bottle back because he needed to learn how to be “responsible”, Toni Nadal has done it all. He shaped and channeled a talented tennis player into the most ruthless force of the modern game.
“I trusted him so implicitly when I was little that I even came to believe he had supernatural powers. It wasn’t till I was nine years old that I stopped thinking he was a magician capable, among other things, of making himself invisible.”
So much that after Rafa had won his first junior Spanish championship at the age of 11, he gave his nephew a list of the previous 25 champions of the same tournament and asked him how many of them had went on to achieve big things in tennis. Barring a couple of names, most of them were unknown or long forgotten.
“This,” Toni told him, “is the possibility you have.”
In February, Toni announced that he will not travel with Rafa as his full-time coach from 2017 and he will focus his time and energy in nurturing new talents at their home academy in Mallorca.
Carlos Moya will take the role as Nadal’s full-time coach supported by Francisco Roig.
So, the chapter that started in 2005 in Paris, will end in New York on Sunday. Irrespective of whether they win or not, Nadal will stay at the Numero Uno of men’s tennis.
Nadal, who has been a strategic mastermind his entire career, owes his tactical prowess to none other than Toni Nadal. At a time when Federer seemed to be invincible, it was Toni who devised a routine of going to the backhand to wear him down.
After two years of playing the second fiddle to Novak Djokovic, the newer, stronger and tactically correct Nadal forehand up the line in 2013, helped him to play from better positions and displace the Serb on the court.
28 years of coaching and each time Nadal is getting overpowered and outdone by an opponent, a mere exchange of glares at the changeover between the nephew and the uncle gets his head and foot back in the game.
In an age where coach-player relationships have an average time of two years, this pair has stood the test of time and kept on producing unbelievable results. The fairy tale run of a 31 year old Nadal in 2017 is the perfect example of this.
Even against Delpotro on Friday, the strategy of going to his backhand clearly misfired due to which Nadal ended up losing the first set. However, he managed to find another gear our of nowhere and dismantled Delpotro in the rest of the match by mixing things up. A huge credit for doing this goes to Toni, who since early days has instilled the importance of finding ‘solutions’ in a tennis match into his nephew’s head.
“Everything I have achieved in the game of tennis, all the opportunities I have had, are thanks to him. I’m especially grateful to him for having placed so much emphasis from the very beginning on making sure I kept my feet on the ground and never became complacent.”
And so, come 2018, whenever Nadal will hit a passing shot on a breakpoint, tennis will miss the sight of an erupting Toni Nadal shouting Vamos in a white baseball cap with ‘Iberostar’ written on it. But to all those who have followed the sport and the life of Rafael Nadal, he will go down as, I dare say, the greatest coach of all time.
And to all the Rafa fans out there, like me, he’ll be Uncle Toni first and Toni Nadal later.