INTERVIEW WITH TONI NADAL – THE DAY HE TOLD RAFAEL “I’M LEAVING”, WHY HIS NEPHEW COULD HAVE 28 GRAND SLAM TITLES AND THE CERTAINTY THAT FEDERER IS COMING BACK TO PLAY IN 2023
PARIS – One day, Toni Nadal said “I’m leaving.” His nephew, Rafael couldn’t believe it, but Toni had his reasons: he no longer felt useful. Then, Toni decided to advise Felix Auger-Aliassime, but before signing a contract, he made one thing clear: he would never, ever do anything to harm his nephew.
This Sunday, the day that Felix and Rafa play on Roland Garros’ center court for the fourth round, Toni will go to his hotel to watch from a distance. And he will not give the Canadian a single piece of advice.
“I, above all, am Rafael’s uncle,” said the man who coached Nadal to the 16 of his 21 Grand Slam titles.
During an interview with CLAY in Paris, Toni Nadal talked about everything: his nephew’s presence, why his serve was always problematic and the relevance of Roger Federer, whom he sees playing in 2023. And why Nadal could have won not 21, but 28 Grand Slam titles.
What is your relationship with Felix Auger-Aliassime?
– It’s different from the one I had with Rafael. I am a collaborator with Felix, which is not the same as being a coach. I am not constantly with him, that’s not my job. I am an advisor; I don’t travel a lot. We do some videoconferencing; it is a different matter.
Why did you choose to advise him?
– They spoke well of him as a person, and I would never work with a rude person.
You wouldn’t coach Kyrgios….
– Well, I don’t want to name names. But I wouldn’t coach anyone who didn’t have respect for me, it’s my philosophy of life. I have no need to do it, but Felix was a good prospect in the academy (he’s referring to Nadal’s academy in Mallorca). And as a director in the Academy, collaborating with a player on the circuit is something that is good for us. Or for Casper Ruud, or for Munar.
How would you define Auger-Aliassime as a tennis player?
– He is one of the top ten players who has the most room for improvement because he can still improve very clear aspects of his game. He serves very well; he has a lot of power in his shots. To improve… He can have more precision in his drive and more control in his backhand. Physically he is a great player. He is good all over the court.
How do you motivate yourself after having coached Nadal and achieved what no other coach has, 16 Grand Slam titles?
– I am not motivated by winning a Grand Slam but by the feeling of being useful. In life, you are motivated when you feel useful. I felt much more useful with Rafael when he was young than when he was already playing here.
Was there a time when you stopped feeling useful?
– Well, yes. I understood that my input was not needed. When I understood that, I left.
And how did the decision come about, was it a conversation?
– No, it was up to me. What gives meaning to life is to feel useful. It is clear that a coach has many more possibilities to contribute to a boy in training than a boy who has already made it. Can I contribute to Felix? Well, I can contribute something, but the work was done by those who trained him as a child.
I no longer feel useful, you said. Was there a conversation with Nadal?
– No, there was no conversation. I was giving a coaching course in Budapest and a journalist asked me a question about the Academy and I said that next year I would be at the Academy longer because I was not going to travel with Rafael. I thought that stayed there, but it was all over the place, and my nephew was surprised. I thought that when I was leaving, I was not doing any harm to my nephew because I saw that he was already well served with Carlos (Moya) and Francis (Roig) and I had nothing left to give. Well then I left.
Today you see Nadal and what do you see?
– My nephew. When I see him play, many times I see him play well, other times not so well. The changes are forced by the physique, the age, the rivals. I think there are aspects of Rafael’s game, such as his serve, that have improved a lot.
Do you still advise him from time to time?
– The truth is that I don’t talk much about tennis with him. If I have the opportunity, I tell him something, but I know he has his coaches and he doesn’t need me to tell him anything.
The serve is probably the stroke that was most difficult for him, do you agree?
– Yes, we trained for many years to improve it. He was not consistent, at times he served well. I think he improved, the direction of his serves, he is serving more relaxed with his wrist.
Does he have too much power and does he not relax his wrist enough?
– No, no. He has a coordination problem. He has a coordination problem because he is right-handed and as a left-hander, it was very difficult for him. But he also didn’t need to serve harder, because that made the game go much faster, and we weren’t interested in that either. But there are moments when you make the decision because you don’t run as much anymore. It’s like Federer with his backhand, who started hitting it harder when he saw he couldn’t run as much.
Nadal decided to serve not as hard so that the game would not accelerate?
– I remember one year in Australia we served harder… The ball was coming faster, and it was worse for us. It was almost better not to serve too fast. But when you can no longer spend five hours on the court and run so much, you must make a change. With good judgment, Carlos Moya made his second serve stronger.
All the talk over the last few weeks about foot pain and injury… It’s actually something he has dealt with all his life, isn’t it?
– Yes, all his life.
Has the pain been exacerbated?
– I don’t know, I haven’t talked much about the foot issue for years, I prefer not to echo the problems too much because they get bigger. But the foot issue has been going on since 2005, it is not a novelty.
You’ve lived with Nadal for many years, was it an unbearable pain?
– Many times, we had to stop training.
That’s crazy, 17, 18 years playing with that pain?
– Many athletes have problems, Rafael has had plenty, but that’s the way it is. My nephew has done very well in life.
When you see the present explosion of Alcaraz, does it bring back memories of Nadal’s explosion in 2005?
– No, it doesn’t bring back memories of 2005, I see a player with great potential. I think he is going to be the best, clearly. Of the young players, he is the best. He is a serious candidate for number one. He has everything, he hits very well with his drive, very well with his backhand, tactically he plays well, he’s courageous and brave.
And he has a very good serve.
– Good serve, good mentality. He is very complete.
Photo – Rafael Nadal greets Carlos Alcaraz after defeating him in the semifinals of Indian Wells 2022 / Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
How is it possible for Spain to do it again? In January, Nadal wins Australia, and now this.
– There is an imitation effect. Emilio Sánchez Vicario, Brugera, Corretja, Moyá, Ferrero, Ferrer, Feliciano, Rafael… People used to get on each other’s nerves. For Alcaraz, seeing Rafael winning for so many years and what he did… It makes you think that you can do it too.
You recently said in a column for “El País” that Roland Garros has become a colder tournament. Why?
– Nowadays we tend to keep everything in order. When you tidy everything up, in the end, it’s colder. Talking to journalists in this tournament is now more complicated. Before we used to arrange everything without problems, now we have to find a space. We tend to regulate everything excessively.
How long are you staying in Paris?
– I’m staying until my player loses.
It could be for two weeks…
– It’s looking complicated, Auger-Aliassime would have to beat my nephew.
And what will you do this Sunday?
– I won’t go to the court.
But would you continue to advise him?
– No, man no. I wouldn’t tell him anything to beat my nephew. I already told him: I’m not going to tell him if my nephew has this or that. Above all, I am Rafael’s uncle, I have been with Rafael for many years, I work for Rafael in the academy. And even if I didn’t work for Rafael, he is my nephew. I’m not going to go and tell the other one what to do to beat him.
So this was discussed with Auger-Aliassime?
– Of course, of course. He accepted it. That’s normal. As a matter of ethics, I wouldn’t tell my nephew what he has to do to win. And there’s no need either, he has his trainer. It’s an unusual situation. Whoever wins will be fine with me.
What do you think about banning Russian and Belarusian players at Wimbledon and the removal of points by the ATP and WTA?
– It seems wrong to me; they should have looked for another solution. By taking away the points you hurt a group of players who play well on grass.
Have they turned Wimbledon into an exhibition?
– No, they haven’t turned it into an exhibition. Whoever wins Wimbledon will have one more Grand Slam. All the others, if you take away the points, are an exhibition. But Wimbledon, no. Is there going to be anybody who doesn’t go to Wimbledon because they took away the points? The top seeds I think are all going to go. And I don’t think the Wimbledon measure is good either. What do you want Rublev to do, who has taken a stand against the war? Why is it his fault that Putin is there? It is as if Manolo Santana had not been allowed to play because Franco was there. I understand the boycott against the oligarchs because they support the regime. But against a regular citizen… On top of the fact that I have to put up with Putin, you’re pissing me off…
There are people who argue that Nadal’s 21 Grand Slam titles are worth less than Djokovic’s 20, because they are less wide-ranging because there are too many Roland Garros in that count. What do you think about that argument?
– There are opinions for all tastes, and maybe if you think that three of the four Grand Slams are played on fast courts and one on clay, maybe Rafael has been able to double them in value. Perez Reverte said: let’s not discuss emotions, let’s discuss arguments. If instead of one Grand Slam on slow courts there were two, and two on fast courts, maybe Rafael would have 28. If my nephew had not been injured and stopped participating in 14 Grand Slam tournaments, then maybe he would have, according to the proportion that he wins one in three, maybe he would have five more. Everyone can think about what they want.
Federer’s return to Basel, is it a return to the circuit or a farewell?
– I hope it’s a return, I would like Federer to have the opportunity to say goodbye in the four Grand Slams, he has been great enough for tennis to pay tribute to him and leave through the big door. I am not in his shoes, I do not know his reality, but what I know for sure is that he likes tennis very much and that he still wants to have the illusion of continuing to compete.
Do you see him playing in 2023?
– It all depends on how he recovers from his injury; he will already be 41 or 42 years old. And 42 is a lot of years to go after the ball, although he has a game of tennis that plays a lot of fast games, with little physical violence, this can help him.
The conversation is interrupted by Rafael Nadal himself. Polite, he greets the journalist and moves on. Then Carlos Moya. The same thing happens, both walk behind Toni Nadal’s back, and there is no contact between them. They do see each other more than once a day.
Does this mean that in 2023 everything will remain the same, with Nadal, Federer and Djokovic as protagonists?
– The renewal will necessarily come; people eventually have their expiration. But you see the intensity with which Rafael was moving a few years ago and now you see that he is moving much less, but still winning. The normal thing is that the new generations surpass the old ones. The extraordinary thing is that this is not happening. They say technology, and this, and that. Mark Spitz, with his seven golds, had his records beaten in the following Games. The one who comes after knows where the others start from and that he has to do something more to surpass them. We have come across different generations of people who have not done something more to beat the previous generations. Last year Djokovic won three Grand Slams!
Have they not done so or have they not been able to?
– I have my opinion, but I’m not going to say it.
Maybe it’s that the old ones were too good and the next generation was not so good?
– The new generation has to surpass the previous one. Unless there is an extraordinary record like Bob Beamon’s or Javier Sotomayor’s, who took too much advantage. Sampras served very strong but the following ones have been serving stronger and stronger. When we arrived on the circuit, the second serve was served at 150, 160 kilometres per hour. This generation serves 180, 190.
There is a skipped generation, then.
– That’s why the dominance of these guys has been so long because they have not managed to overcome them. But the normal thing would have been otherwise. Federer dominates the circuit and surpasses Hewitt, Rodick. He plays two or three years easily. But then Rafael arrives and hits him harder, he has to change. He was used to the speed of Hewitt and Roddick, and then Rafael, Djokovic, Del Potro come o to the scene and force him to do other things. This intermediate generation did not manage to complicate them. Although Medvedev and Thiem won the US Open. If Tsitsipas had won in 2021 at Roland Garros… But it takes more. There is a mathematical reality, Borg, Connors and McEnroe won 26 Grand Slams. Djokovic, Federer and Rafael won 61. McEnroe was up from 79 to 84/85, Borg was up six or seven years, Connors a decade, 73 to 82/83. Federer won the last one in 2018 and the first one in 2003, Rafel won the first one in 2005 and 17 years later he won Australia.
Can Alcaraz then be the one to re-establish the succession order?
– Yes, he can. He hits even harder.
How do you see Djokovic?
– I still see him the same. I imagine the motivation is to win more Grand Slams than the others. When they have done everything they have done, in the end, what you are left with is history. Although it is difficult to say who was the best in history, the one who won more titles or the one who has played better for a while. Who would be the best, the one who has 21 Grand Slams or the one who wins 12 in three years? And it is not the same to compete with Djokovic and Federer as to compete with I don’t know who.
Clay’s managing editor has covered more than 60 Grand Slam tournaments since 1996. Author of “Sin Red”, a journey around the world following Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.