uncle toni

Rafa: Uncle is Uncle

1/29/2011Rafaholics ™


Tennis: Uncle still main man for Rafael

By Michael Burgess
5:30 AM Sunday Jan 30, 2011

Photo: AP

Three words from Rafa Nadal summed it up. The world No 1 was asked last year if one day, he might consider taking on a new coach, to hear a new voice and benefit from a new approach.

"Uncle is Uncle," he said simply, signifying that Toni will always be his coach as well as his father's brother.

Toni Nadal is recognised from Shanghai to Soweto, Bangladesh to Budapest. Standing with him outside the player cafe at Melbourne Park, the excitement was palpable among a group of juniors, "It's Toni - Uncle Toni," they whispered.

The 49-year-old is realistic about the fame. "I know I am famous because I am the coach of Rafael Nadal," he told the Herald on Sunday. "If I was with the No 100, I could be doing the same work but nobody would know me."

Antonio "Toni" Nadal Homar has been coaching Rafael since the youngster was four. Apart from encouraging him to play left-handed instead of his natural right, Toni has been instrumental in instilling the renowned competitive spirit, as well as a humble nature, into the player they call El Nino.

"As a player, his most important asset is his fighting spirit," says Toni. "I think he has a better mental control [than the others]. You have to work on that from when you are very young. It is just the same as working on your backhand or forehand. If you only start on this when you are older, it is much more difficult. With Rafael, we have worked a lot on his intensity and mentality. Like most things in life, it is about the little details."

Nadal has long been recognised as one of the mentally toughest players in the history of the sport. Where Federer is grace and guile, Nadal is grit and guts. This was epitomised in his shock quarter-final loss to David Ferrer, where the 24-year-old injured his hamstring early in the match but elected to play on.

"I don't like to retire," he told El Pais. "The pain was bad, but not bad enough to retire. I retire when I can no longer overcome the pain."

Withdrawing from a match was a horrible feeling, he said, and after doing so at last year's Australian Open, against Andy Murray at the same stage, he never wanted to repeat the experience. There was also a sense of loyalty towards his friend Ferrer, as Nadal was well aware that pulling out would have tainted his compatriot's victory.

It is a grey area but it is generally accepted that often players choose to exit, not just because of a physical ailment, but also because they can't stand the emotional toll of a loss. Novak Djokovic has withdrawn from numerous big matches over the years, indicative of his mental fragility - though the 2011 model looks significantly stronger.

What is still uncertain is the role Toni played in the decision to continue in the quarter-final. While Nadal's entourage has grown significantly over the years, one voice remains loudest. It was Toni who had the final say before Wimbledon in 2009, when Nadal made the most difficult decision of his career. Nadal was desperate to defend his most cherished trophy but, after seeing him struggle in a warm-up match, Toni decided enough was enough.

Many have criticised Nadal's perceived dependence on his coach. While it is not quite at the Justine Henin level, whom one writer mischievously suggested used to look to her coach during the rally, Nadal makes eye contact with Toni after just about every point.

Was there a signal from Toni, a sign to the nephew indicating that he must not stop?

This is unlikely. Nadal's tenacity comes from within. He seeks support from Toni but is not lost without him. "He is able to confront the intensity of any match. He is also probably the player who wins more games when he is playing bad than any other player - that is also very important," says Toni. "From when he was little, I made it so that things didn't always go smoothly. So, unlike other kids today, he has learned that things don't always happen the easy way, not right away."

Toni made the youngster practise in poor conditions, with old tennis balls and dodgy lights just to show him that winning or losing comes down to attitude, discipline and perspective.

Some speculated, especially during his struggles in 2009, that Nadal might benefit from a change of coach.

"It is more difficult if you change," says Toni. "When you change, it means that you can't take responsibility for your own problems. I believe you are solely responsible for all of your successes and all of your failures. It is not to do with your coach, or the court or the balls. Rafael has this idea very clearly in his head."

Toni admits it is difficult to imagine coaching anyone else, though the Nadal clan do have plans to open a tennis academy in Mallorca. "Hopefully we will find another youngster and clearly I could be his coach."

Manacor is a town of 30,000 people in Mallorca and the local tennis club has just five courts. Nadal resisted pressure to move his training base to Barcelona as a teen, and retains his small town values. He has never smashed a racquet; his uncle would refuse to coach him if he did.

Toni says Nadal's best quality is that he is a "great person" but there is science behind the syrup. He has tried to develop character in Nadal, because he believes it has an impact on results and performance.

Former world No 1 Carlos Moya was Nadal's idol for a long time but Toni was disappointed to overhear Moya ordering his coach to "order a taxi".

Like the batting crease and putting green, the tennis court can be one of the loneliest places in the world. Self-reliance is crucial, which is why Toni insists on the small stuff, like Nadal carrying his own bags to practice and taking his own racquets to the stringer.

As we talked, Andy Murray's mother and confidante Judy Murray went past.

"Congratulations," Toni yelled to Judy. "Too good. Every day is too good. You will be in the final."

He later expressed admiration for the Scotsman's form. "If Murray keeps playing to his level, [Rafa] is not going to win. All you can do is what you can control - play to the best of your ability. We have been lucky to win so much. If we don't win anything else, we will still be very content and satisfied."

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