Rafael Nadal and Uncle Toni, One Last Time Together at the U.S. Open
NEW YORK – In keeping with the spirit of New York, let’s beat the traffic. Let’s get a jump on the rush. And before the man officially retires, let’s toast a figure who has quietly become one of the most successful coaches the sport has known.
Earlier this year, Toni Nadal—quietly, of course—announced that this would be his last season coaching his nephew, Rafa. As coaching changes go, this is seismic, the equivalent of Steve Kerr leaving the Warriors or Zinedine Zidane departing Real Madrid. Yet it is, at best, a secondary storyline.
Maybe the departure of Uncle Toni, as he’s universally known, didn't get much play because—not unlike a certain 15-time major champ—he has never been one to call attention to himself.
And maybe it’s because the retirement simply seemed, well, reasonable and logical. We’re talking about a man in his mid-50s who’s been traveling the globe for the better part of 15 years. And, a seamless succession plan is in order. Carlos Moya, an accomplished champion from the same island, has been an unofficial part of the Nadal membrane for years; and became an official member last December.
But as Uncle Toni appears in what could be his last Grand Slam, let’s take some inventory. Here is a man with a modest tennis resume as a player, who not only developed one of the towering talents in tennis history, but then coached him to 15 major singles titles.
Rafa Nadal was three years old he began working under the tutelage of his father’s brother. Toni’s first stroke of genius was to turn a righty into a lefty on the court. But beyond the technical and the tactical, Toni knew how to motivate his nephew, how to instill organizing principles. When Rafa was eight, he won the Balearic tennis championships in the under-12’s age division. A few years later, he was the champion in his age group within all of Spain. Before the kid’s head could swell, Toni provided his nephew with a list of the tournament’s past winners.
“How many names do you recognize?” he asked.
“Not many,” Nadal responded with a shrug.
“Exactly,” said Toni, leaving it to the kid to reach the conclusion that this junior title hardly guaranteed future success. A few months later, Nadal was the 12-and-under champion for all of Europe.
And this dynamic didn't change. In 2010, Nadal came to the U.S. Open as the best player in the world and the defending Wimbledon champ. His place in the game was established. His net worth assured generational wealth. In the locker room after a practice session, Uncle Toni asked his nephew where he’d placed his water bottle. When Rafa responded sheepishly that he’d left it on the court, his Uncle grimaced and shook his head. And so it was that the world’s best player didn't summon an acolyte or tournament employee, but sprinted back onto the court himself to fetch a bottle he’d forgotten. He won the tournament a few days later.
Assigning the value of a tennis coach is always tricky. You want to give credit where it is due. But you never want to minimize the achievements of the players themselves, the ones who are actually in the arena. We can argue that, like all experiments, results must be replicable. The truly great coaches need to prove their bona fides with multiple players. Part of what makes Jose Higueras and Darren Cahill and Paul Annacone admirable is their repeated success with different players and different personalities at different stages of their careers.
Assessing the value of the coach is especially tough in the case of Nadal. The player in question has been astonishingly successful on his own. It’s worth noting that Nadal’s resurgent year in 2017 has coincided with Carlos Moya playing a chief role.
While, let’s be clear, it was Rafa doing the winning, Toni was there—there to support, there to help to game plan, there to talk with the familiarity of family. His track record doesn't just speak for itself. It screams. With his uncle in the box, Rafael has won more than 70 titles and 850 matches. It's also worth noting that Rafa Nadal—through all the swings of his career—never made a coaching change. Again and again, Nadal has described his uncle as “the most important person in my tennis career.”
With his nephew in good hands, Toni says he’ll now focus his attention on his namesake academy. It will be interesting to see how he’ll develop and cultivate talent when there’s not a blood relationship.
As he sizes up his final major, Uncle Toni says that he leaves without regrets. In so many words, he says: “My work here is done.”
Is it ever.