Time to Say Uncle

Tuesday, June 10, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

It wasn’t so long ago that Mary Carillo, while commenting on U.S. television, could make the words “Uncle Toni” sound like something of a joke. What kind of tennis pro brought his uncle along to coach him at a Grand Slam? That would be Rafael Nadal, of course, a teenager from a small island who, at the time, was challenging Roger Federer for the French Open title. In those days, Federer’s coach was the legendary Australian champion Tony Roche. Uncle Toni vs. Tony Roche: It was hard to disagree with Carillo that this didn’t sound like a fair fight. 

Rafa, Carillo, and the rest of us have come a long way since then. And so has the man now universally known as “Uncle Toni”—Toni Nadal, it seems, is uncle to us all. But no one says his name like it’s a joke anymore. On Sunday, Rafa was widely praised for winning his 14th Grand Slam title. What went unmentioned was that his uncle had won his 14th Grand Slam title as a coach. We spend a lot of time wondering whether Rafa could one day be considered the greatest player of all time. But we might want to start asking another question: Is Toni Nadal already the greatest coach of all time?

Toni, an even more hard-bitten realist than his nephew, would almost certainly demur. And he wouldn’t be wrong to do so: If it’s difficult to compare tennis players from different eras, it may be even tougher to compare coaches. At least the players have always had the same objective, to win. The job of tennis coach has evolved drastically through the decades, and the version that we know now hardly existed before the 1970s.

Take, for example, the most famous tennis coach of all, Australia’s Harry Hopman [at right, in 1931]. He worked in the amateur era, when Davis Cup, rather than the Grand Slams, was the ultimate prize. This made him closer to a team-sport manager than a one-on-one coach. He created a dynasty of Australian players that dominated the Cup for more than a decade, and he brought his magic touch with him when he moved to Long Island in the 1970s and inspired John McEnroe, Vitas Gerulaitis, and Peter Fleming. You can’t beat Hopman for quantity of players, but he wasn’t directly involved with one of them for his entire career the way Toni Nadal has been with Rafa.

Nick Bollettieri straddled the line between eras. Like Hopman, he has tried to get the best out of as many players as possible at his academy, but, like modern coaches, he has also gone on the road with his star pupils, like Monica Seles, Andre Agassi, and Boris Becker. Again, Nick has the numbers, but he’s not solely responsible for the achievements of any one champion.

Then there are the parents: Jimmy Evert, Gloria Connors, Karolj Seles, Melanie Molitor, Mike Agassi, Richard and Oracene Williams, Judy Murray, and dozens of others. They typically lay the foundations for their child’s success, before handing off the day-to-day coaching duties at some point. Pete Fischer played a similar role with Pete Sampras, as did Robert Lansdorp with Tracy Austin and Maria Sharapova, and Jelena Gencic with Novak Djokovic. Perhaps because Toni isn’t Rafa’s father, the two of them have been able to keep their familial/working relationship going for more than two decades.

Finally, there are the professional coaches, those who take already formed talents and guide them to Grand Slam titles: Lennart Bergelin with Bjorn Borg; Paul Annacone with Pete Sampras and Roger Federer; Roche with Ivan Lendl, Pat Rafter, and Federer; Dennis Ralston with Chris Evert; Tony Pickard with Stefan Edberg; Heinz Gunthardt with Steffi Graf; Nancy Lieberman (and others) with Martina Navratilova; Lendl with Andy Murray.

From what I can tell, the only one of these coaches who approaches Toni Nadal’s 14 Slam titles is, yes, Tony Roche. He won them with Lendl, Rafter, and Federer during his prime years from 2005 to 2007. But Roche didn’t have anything like the type of impact on any of his players that Toni Nadal has had on his.

Tio Toni is the rare combination of a foundational coach and a professional coach—he’s Mike Agassi and Brad Gilbert, Jimmy Evert and Dennis Ralston in one (the closest comparison might be Carlos Rodriguez’s relationship with Justine Henin; both Carlos and Toni have also been caught doing a little too much advising from the sidelines at times). Toni introduced his nephew to the sport and taught him how to hit the ball, and he’s still in his player’s box for virtually every match. When Rafa won his ninth French Open on Sunday, he walked straight across the court to share a hug his with his family and his coach.

Most important, and most lasting, Toni instilled a philosophy of tennis in Rafa—lessons about the sport doubled as lessons about life, and vice-versa. He treated him roughly, asked more of him than he did his other students, yet never let him act like a star. He taught him to be stoical, to accept that bad things happen, on court and off, and that enduring them and overcoming them is the truest triumph. He dreamed the dream of a tennis champion for him, and didn’t allow him to be satisfied with anything less.

In short, Toni was, and apparently still is, a pain in the ass—Rafa’s 2012 autobiography could have been subtitled, “My adventures with my crazy uncle.” But he was the right pain in the ass, and his position as uncle was, in retrospect, a perfect one. He was emotionally, rather than financially, invested in his nephew’s career; Toni isn’t paid by Rafa. Yet he never had to worry about the complications that come with being a tennis father. He was free to be tough with his student, while at the same time forming a natural two-man team with him. That also left room for the young player to be influenced by his real father, Sebastian; as Rafa has said, they share a positive, winner’s personality that the darker Toni doesn’t.

Just as important, the uncle-nephew partnership has never stopped working—it was foundational to start, but has become professional since. Rafa is famous for tinkering with his game, for making changes to his strokes and looking for more efficient ways to win points. His service motion is significantly different from what it was six years ago. Part of that comes from the relationship he has with his coach. They have the comfort level to try anything together, and Toni is known for being open-minded, even to ideas from people he has never met. It’s hardly an accident that Nadal, while he may looked like a clay-court specialist at first, has broadened his scope over the years. Toni often refers to Rafa as “we”—we did this, we won that. He’s not taking credit; he’s acknowledging that the will and work of two people has been behind the Nadal success.

The nephew doesn't disagree. I can remember, during a slump of his many years ago, Rafa being asked if he would consider changing coaches. His answer was to raise an eyebrow, crinkle his face, and say, “Huh?” More than any other player I can remember, it's impossible to imagine Rafa without his mentor. A relationship that sounded like a joke at first has turned into the greatest coach-player duo of all time. We should all have an uncle that can do that for us.

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