Uncle Toni will always be a factor in Rafa tale

Tennis : The man who shaped the Spanish ace is taking a step back

Uncle Toni will always be a factor in Rafa tale

There has been no one else in modern tennis quite like the Nadals: an all-in-the family, often-all-conquering duo composed of Toni Nadal and his nephew Rafael, who remains Rafael — not Rafa — to Toni.

Toni was Rafael’s first teacher at age 3 on the Spanish island of Majorca, and Toni has remained his primary coach and tennis influence for 14 Grand Slam singles titles, long stretches at No 1 and two Olympic gold medals.

It was Toni who determined that Rafael — right-handed in many respects — should play tennis with his left. It was Toni who decided that Rafael would play his forehand with one hand instead of two; and it was Toni who convinced young Rafael that his uncle had magical powers.

Last month, as Rafael reminded the wider world of his staying power with a surprise run to the final of the Australian Open at age 30, it was still Toni there in the players’ box, hunched forward and trying to hold his emotions in check under his sponsored cap.

It is unique in this era for a coach to develop an elite men’s player from the very beginning to the very top, and all the more remarkable to remain a duo long after the summit has been scaled. (We will see how the 19-year-old phenom Alexander Zverev and his tightly intertwined tennis family fare in the seasons to come.)

“It’s been 27 years now with Rafael and tennis,” Toni said in a telephone interview from Majorca. “I remember when he was 3, and at the beginning we played a few times, and he liked it. But as he liked soccer much more, he stopped playing tennis for a while before coming back to it.

“I always had the belief when Rafael was small that he could be a very good player. But I could never have imagined all that he would do in tennis.”

If Toni sounds nostalgic, he is. Transition is coming. Not this season, but soon, as Toni confirmed that he intends to step down as Rafael’s primary coach at the end of 2017.

Toni said he wants to focus on developing the next generation of talent at the new Rafa Nadal Academy in Manacor, the family’s home city on Majorca.

Now 57, Toni said he wants to spend more time at home with his wife and children after all the years on the road, but he also insisted that despite an initial report in an Italian tennis magazine last week, he is not making the move out of frustration over a lack of influence in Rafael’s expanding team, which now includes the former No 1 and fellow Majorcan Carlos Moya.

“Look, next year, if Rafael asks me to come to Monte Carlo for the tournament because, say, Carlos Moya can’t make it, I’ll be delighted to do it,” Toni said. “All this decision means is that my contribution needs to become secondary and that I will focus on the academy. This is the reality, but it’s not the reality to say I have a problem with my nephew. Absolutely not.”

Rafael has yet to comment publicly on Toni’s plans. He was apparently unaware of them until last week’s report, which emerged from an interview Toni gave at a coaching conference in Budapest. But Toni said that he had already informed his brother Sebastia, Rafael’s father, and that he had also told Moya in Australia but that he did not want to distract Rafael during the tournament.

Toni said that he finally discussed it with Rafael this week, and that his nephew was initially surprised, in part, because of how well things had gone in Australia.

“He was thinking about the short term, and the short term looked very good,” Toni said. “But it was not like I was stepping down immediately. If I had stopped with Rafa overnight, that clearly would have been big news, but I really didn’t think me deciding to focus on the academy next year would be big news.”
That, judging from the Spanish headlines, was a miscalculation.

“My error,” said Toni, who said he should have spoken to Rafael directly before saying anything publicly. “If I thought it was big news, I would not have said it there in Budapest in that setting.”

Toni has never had much of a filter when it comes to public pronouncements. Through the years, he and Rafael have had their disputes about the chain of command (“I owe a lot to Toni but he also owes a lot to me,” Rafael wrote in his 2011 autobiography). But Toni said he thought that his feelings had been misrepresented in this instance, because his comment about diminishing influence was not made during the interview, when he laid out his plans for the academy, but rather during a question-and-answer session with coaches later in the day.

“They put together what I said in the morning and what I said in the afternoon in the report as if they were linked,” Toni said. “There is no relation.”

During that Q&A session, Toni reportedly said: “Until Rafael was 17, I decided everything, and then came the agent Carlos Costa and then Rafael’s father got more involved, each one with their opinions. The truth is that with every year that passes, I decide less, and we have arrived at the point where I decide nothing.”

Toni said that the last part of that comment was “a joke” and that it was “normal” that the decision-making process be shared and, above all, that it was “normal” that Rafael makes the big decisions.

Whatever the intent, it is hard to imagine Toni making his move at this late stage if he still felt absolutely central to the process. He acknowledged that Moya’s strong performance since he joined the team in December was a decisive factor.

“When someone’s been No 1 like Carlos, we didn’t know whether he would be really involved in the work or if he had other priorities,” Toni said. “But in these two months, I could clearly see his commitment, his desire to work and his professionalism. And that’s when I thought: ‘OK, here is a guy who is doing the work perfectly. I can dedicate myself to other things.’ If Carlos had not come on board, I would have continued.”

Toni is not quite done yet. He plans to be with Rafael in Miami in March and with him for the clay-court season as he goes for what would be a mind-boggling 10th French Open title. Toni plans to be with his nephew on the grass and the hardcourts, too. They have shared a tennis journey unlike any other for 27 years, and for all those who followed from close range or afar, Uncle Toni will always be Coach Toni, too.

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