Just before the start of this week’s ATP Masters 1000 Monte Carlo Open, came the intriguing news that Rafa Nadal’s famed former coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, was returning to the tennis tour, with another player.
The mastermind behind one of the sport’s Old Gen superstars will be teaming up with its Next Gen poster-boy, 20-year-old Canadian world no. 21, Felix Auger-Aliassime.
Uncle Toni, who had coached Rafa since childhood, stepped away in 2017 after guiding his nephew to a record-breaking – at the time – 16 Grand Slams. Since then, he has been focusing on his role as director of the Rafa Nadal Academy in Manacor.
Auger-Aliassime, long touted as the Next Gen player most likely to succeed, has been finding out the hard way that the transition from top junior to top pro can be rather tough. A career trajectory that appeared to be gliding serenely upwards had stalled recently, which prompted the change.
After a disappointing end to 2020, he parted with his coach of six years, Guillaume Manx, who had overseen his progression to the senior tour and is now working with Frederic Fontang, who was already part of his team. The youngster spent the whole of his pre-season at Nadal’s Academy, where he struck up a serendipitous relationship with the 60-year-old Toni, which led to a formal appointment. The position, though, will be more that of coaching consultant and mentor, working alongside Fontang, who will remain his full-time coach.
The news of Uncle Toni’s return to the tour with a player not called Rafa has been a big talking point, and came as a surprise to some, such as world no. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas, who admits that he didn’t see it coming, though not to world no. 1, Novak Djokovic: ‘It honestly did not surprise me too much. I know Felix has spent quite a bit of time in the last couple of years in Rafa’s academy training and getting an [sic] advice and mentorship from Toni.’
Djokovic suggested Uncle Toni’s motivation was the prospect of a fresh challenge: ‘Toni probably was excited to explore a new project, a new adventure on the tour with one of the best young tennis players in the world at the moment.’
Rafa, too, was supportive of his uncle’s new team-up: ‘I am happy that he’s on the Tour for a couple of weeks. At the same time, I am happy for Felix. It is going to be good support, have a great coach like Toni next to him.’
Obviously, the big question is what will happen when Uncle Toni’s former and current players are inevitably drawn against each other (French Open anyone?). Uncle Toni was emphatic that he would stay away from the match if/when the clash occurs, though one wonders who he would want to win, especially if it took place at the French Open!
The collaboration also illustrates the ambiguity of the player-coach relationship-dynamic in tennis, which can be tricky to circumvent successfully. The coach is employed by the player, making him, technically, an employee, but paradoxically with authority over his employer to tell them what to do and where they have gone wrong. Yet the coach can be fired on a whim by their player since the latter pays their wages and expenses.
It was for this very reason that Uncle Toni refused to be paid for coaching his nephew: ‘I don’t want to receive money from Rafael, I want to be the boss.’ Receiving money for his coaching would have diminished his authority and meant Rafa could exert power over him.
Interestingly, having coached Rafa from the age of 3, it was his diminishing authority over his grown-up nephew, following the appointment of Carlos Moya to the team, that incited Toni to quit. Presumably, in the present instance, he will be well-remunerated for his services, so it is to be seen whether he can adapt to a more hands-off, less controlling role and still make a meaningful impact, given his position as more mentor and guide, with none of the intensity of a full-time travelling coach.
Auger-Aliassime is prodigiously talented and exciting to watch, but his game can be brittle, and he has never progressed beyond the fourth round in Slams. The extent of work required by Uncle Toni to take his new charge to the next level was evident in Monte Carlo.
The new pairing got off to an inauspicious start with Auger-Aliassime losing in the first round to the unheralded Chilean world no. 24, Cristian Garín. Uncle Toni’s old protege was, of course, his usual brilliant self as he cruised into the quarter-finals after thumping Grigor Dimitrov 6-1, 6-1, on Thursday.
The comparisons will be inevitable, if unfair. But with Uncle Toni in his box, some of Rafa’s stardust may just get sprinkled into Felix Auger-Aliassime’s game.