Tennis: Rafael thrown off guard by uncle's decision to quit

Nadal is surprised by Toni's call to step down later this term after a good start

Spain's Rafael Nadal (right) listening to his coach and uncle Toni Nadal during training at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Spain's Rafael Nadal (right) listening to his coach and uncle Toni Nadal during training at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. He went on to win the men's doubles gold with Marc Lopez, adding to the singles gold he won at the 2008 Beijing Games. The former world No. 1 also won 14 Grand Slam singles titles with Toni in his corner. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Last month, as Rafael Nadal reminded the world of his staying power in tennis with a surprise run to the final of the Australian Open at age 30, it was still his uncle Toni there in the players' box, hunched forward and trying to hold his emotions in check under his 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.

"It's been 27 years now with Rafael and tennis," Toni said in a telephone interview on Tuesday from Mallorca in Spain.

"I remember when he was three, 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."

That includes 14 Grand Slam singles titles, long stretches at No. 1 and two Olympic gold medals.


If Toni sounded nostalgic, he was. Transition is coming. Not this season, but soon, as he confirmed on Tuesday that he intends to step down as Nadal's primary coach at the end of this year.

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 the island of Mallorca.

The 57-year-old 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 Nadal's expanding team, which includes the former world No. 1 and fellow Mallorcan 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."

Nadal 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 Sebastian, Nadal's father, and that he had also told Moya in Australia but that he did not want to distract Nadal during the tournament.

Toni said that he finally discussed it with Nadal 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."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2017, with the headline 'Rafael thrown off guard'. Print Edition | Subscribe