Toni Nadal, the uncle of Rafael Nadal who coached his nephew to 14 Grand Slam titles and an unprecedented run of dominance on clay courts, announced to a Hungarian newspaper he was retiring as Nadal’s coach at the end of 2017. Only thing is, Uncle Toni forgot to tell Rafa.
A Nadal spokesman said the 30-year-old hadn’t heard about his uncle’s departure until he first heard word of that newspaper interview, which was conducted at a coaching conference in Budapest.
Toni said he’d decided on the plans before the Australian Open and told his brother (Rafa’s father) and Carlos Moya (a new face in the Nadal coaching box) but kept Rafa out of the loop because he didn’t want him distracted during his surprise run to the finals of the year’s first Grand Slam.
Yeah, the biggest coaching/pupil success in the history of men’s tennis, not to mention a 27-year partnership that brought about one of the greatest runs in sports history, is splitting up. NBD. By the way, Paul left the Beatles.
“He was a little bit surprised at the start, but we have explained it to him well,” Toni said, according to the AFP, referring to his nephew like he was still a preteen traveling to junior tournaments.
Toni, 57, also told news outlets he was leaving to spend more time with his family and to focus on developing talent at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca, which recently opened. He confirmed Nadal’s surprise and downplayed any of the rumored tension that accompanied his first announcement, in which Toni mentioned his diminishing role in Team Rafa. Rumors that Toni was leaving because of his diminished role on Team Rafa were shot down, if somewhat unconvincingly.
During the panel at that conference Toni discussed his waning influence on his nephew. He told Clarey he was joking and I don’t doubt it, but there’s at least a kernel of truth here and probably far more:
“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.”
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Toni didn’t mention Moya, the former Spanish tennis player who recently joined Rafa’s coaching squad, but he didn’t really have to. He insists everything is fine with his nephew and that he’ll still travel to tournaments (he mentioned one in Europe) if Moya can’t make it.
If this all goes through (nine months is a long time for Toni or Rafa to reconsider), it would be the end of one of the great coach/pupil relationships the sport has ever seen. Toni, a former professional soccer player, started working with a three-year-old Rafa on the clay in Majorca, turning him into a lefty (Nadal does most things right-handed), teaching him a two-handed forehand for added power and instilling a work ethic that’s legendary within the game (and may have helped contribute to Rafa’s recent decline due to injuries).
“I have told him he is well looked after,” Toni said. “Rafael has always taken things well, he is not the problematic type.”
Okay. Now I’m calling nonsense. Remember in 2009 when Nadal lost in the French Open for the first time ever and later revealed he was adrift while suffering a crisis of body and soul due to the separation of his parents? Uncle Toni leaving isn’t quite that but Nadal, with all his habits and rituals, doesn’t exactly seem like the kind to take change very well.
There have been calls for Toni to step aside for years, as Nadal was surpassed by Novak Djokovic and then Andy Murray. Since Rafa won three straight majors to close 2010, he hasn’t won a Slam outside Roland Garros. A change helped Djokovic, Murray and Federer to new heights in their careers. Was Nadal stuck in the clay?
A new set of eyes can’t be a bad thing. Nadal is still No. 6 in the world (thanks to an injury layoff that robbed him of opportunities to compile points), just played in his first major final in three years and is about to embark on a clay-court season that’s being viewed as the forum for his grand comeback.
The question is, by the time Toni steps aside at the end of 2017, will any change be too little too late for Rafa?