Taking Rafael Nadal under his wings at a very tender age, Toni Nadal has moulded the World No.1 into the player he is today. His unwavering trust in this tennis prodigy has resulted in one of the most respectable on and off court relationship between him and his nephew and his relentless support in training the Spaniard has been the biggest factor in his battle of overcoming the fears of his injuries, his classic rivalries and a fight-until-the-end approach towards his game.
Had it not been for the patient coach who handed Nadal his first tennis racquet at the age of four, his nephew who was a good football player, would have never been the tennis player he is at present. The relationship that this pair shares is that of a father and a son and Toni has made sure that Rafa takes his own decisions and this has led to an exponential growth of the Majorcan as a player.
Toni has revealed in Nadal’s biography, “I say to him (before every match): ‘Look, you’ve got two roads to choose from – tell yourself you’ve had enough and we leave, or be prepared to suffer and keep going. The choice is between enduring and giving up.” Considering Nadal’s style of play which is both enigmatic and tedious for the 13-time Major winner, whose creaking knees have always been a cause of concern, Toni Nadal does not meddle much with the mechanics of his playing as he only encourages Rafa to put in his 100% while playing every point whether it be from the baseline or the net or while serving. Toni’s philosophy is: “First hit the ball hard and then we’ll see about keeping it in.”
Not only does Toni bring out the ‘Charging Bull’ title in Rafael Nadal, he is the mentor who is responsible for making Rafa one of the nicest individuals on court. Toni has always worked hard to keep up with the family’s ideologies of hard work, humility and respect for others. From an early age Toni taught Rafael to never throw his racquet after a bad point telling him about how disrespectful it is for the people who could not afford to buy proper tennis equipment or blaming external factors for the defeat.
This upbringing showed in his never say die attitude during the Australian Open 2014 final against Stanislas Wawrinka, as despite an ailing back, he never disgruntled during the points and barring a few extended time-outs and on-court therapies, gave an almost unflustered fight till the end before losing the match in four sets, but still maintaining the highest dignity on court.
Uncle Toni’s influence was pivotal to moulding Rafael’s on and off-court life. Toni was always rough with the young boy; he used rough language and even fired balls at him to bring him back to reality when Rafael’s mind started wandering. To make sure Nadal was as grounded as any human being at his age, Toni made him clear the court after practice sessions, something that he never made any of the other boys do. ‘Mummy’s boy’ as Rafael was often taunted by Toni whenever he faltered, instilled a stronger belief in the young Nadal that he could one day make his uncle and coach the proudest man on the planet.
An incident from the reigning French and US Open champion’s junior days would tell you how tough a taskmaster Toni was. Rafa was participating in the Spanish under-14s national championship and in his opener he somehow stumbled on court and broke the little finger in his left hand. Unable to bear the pain, he was about to withdraw from the competition, before Toni stepped him and said ‘you still have one hand intact, go and play on’. Those reassuring words gave Rafa a new-belief in his ability and not only he played on, but won the tournament as well.
This incident shows both the coach and Nadal’s tireless strive to perfection. Till the age of eight, Nadal used both his hands while playing forehand and backhand shots. Toni made Rafa practice single handed forehand shots with his left hand as most right handed players do not like playing ‘lefties’. This transition, even though a difficult one for the champ paved the way for a career which has been penned down in the history as one of the most remarkable sporting careers of all time.
The grumpy coach has always preferred to be intransigent with his sporting genius. He has never been the one to complement Nadal for his achievements as he believes that a bad player is the one who needs to be flattered all the time and in the case of Rafael, Toni believes in encouragement and words of wisdom rather than inconsequential honeyed words. A pat on the back has always sufficed for the 27 year old who has always stayed grounded to reality as much as possible.
Moreover, Toni has never accepted excuses from Nadal to justify his losses. Believing in the cause and effect relationship, Toni knows that if you work well then no power in the world can stop you from achieving your dreams but if the requisite efforts haven’t been put in, failure is most likely.
Things have not always been flowery and good for the duo. In 2011, after losing his sixth successive final to rival Novak Djokovic at the US Open, Nadal spoke out in exasperation sparking rumours of a drift in this nonpareil relationship. “You never know what is in the future. The time has now come when I can say more to him (Toni) than I have done previously. I’m not kidding when I say that from now on I will answer him back because I have more opinions that I had before. So far I’ve been happy with how I’ve played this year, but not with my matches against Djokovic. He’s my motivation to play better.”
In spite of this, this coach-player relationship has remained unparalleled in tennis history. Some comparisons can be drawn between their relationship and Andre Agassi’s relationship with his father. Both believe in discipline and being unbearably arduous during practice sessions so that the tennis matches are more endurable.
Rafa, owing to his docile nature never rebelled against his uncle. In Rafa’s biography written by John Carlin, who has rightly described how the pair has lasted for so long “Toni was hard on Rafa because he knew Rafa could take it and would eventually thrive. He would not have applied the same principles with a weaker child. This argument prevailed in the family at least to the point that no one, not even Rafa’s mother, ever really confronted Toni and told him to ease up on the child. They understood that spending so many hours with Toni in the extreme; but that the two of them had reached a point where they could not live, much less succeed in tennis, without each other.”
This dynamic duo has endured a lot in the recent past owing to Rafa’s long stint with his troublesome knees and his hazardous style of play but with Toni’s unremitting trust on the highbrowed tennis player, Nadal who has surely come a long way is certain that his future owing to his erudite coach would never, ever be in the dark.