Nearly all media attention usually goes to the tennis player, and rightly so. He or she is the one in the spotlight, the one battling it out with another opponent in order to accomplish something.
But behind the tennis player there is someone else; a confidant, a person who is always there to share the highs and lows of a tennis player’s career. This person is "the constant" along with the tennis player.
In Rafael Nadal’s case, this person is Toni Nadal, his uncle and coach. From the few interviews that Toni Nadal gives he sounds more like a philosopher than a coach; an intriguing personality with strong views and beliefs.
In his younger years Toni Nadal would play ping-pong and tennis. In ping-pong he managed to become the Balearic Islands champion, while he was also in the Spanish top 30 in tennis. However, he would not dedicate his full time on sport, because he also had other interests, like gardening, history and philosophy.
In fact, Uncle Toni studied history at a university level.
Toni was the manager at the Manacor Tennis Club at the time when he gave his nephew a racket to try his hand in tennis. He noticed how Rafa, or Rafael as Toni always calls him, would never get bored of hitting the ball. He had this commitment that even older people than him did not have.
As Toni recalls, “Always, he had this discipline.”
Toni Nadal decided to coach the younger Nadal, but only under his terms.
Uncle Toni stated that if young Rafa ever threw a racket or got angry on court he would end the collaboration immediately. His reason for this? When throwing a racket you show disrespect, both to the sport and to the people who cannot afford a racket.
He also stated that when you lose a tennis match, it is your fault and your fault alone. Never blame the strings, the rackets, the balls, the court or anything. “Losing is part of competing,” as Toni says.
Toni would make Rafael play on dodgy courts with terrible tennis balls just so his young protégé could put things into perspective, and understand that winning or losing was about being disciplined and having a correct attitude.
“Just because you’re good at hitting a tennis ball, that doesn’t make you better or worse than anyone else,” Toni once said to Rafa, “Everything in life has a positive and negative side.”
After Nadal’s practice finished on the dodgy courts he would later have to clean the courts as well. How Nadal still had courage to go on after all these "lessons" just shows how disciplined he was at such a young age.
“When Rafael was young, I thought he could be a good player but never did I want to see him be bad on the court,” Toni said of his nephew. “I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen.”
“The best aspect he has is the mental strength when dealing with hard situations. He is a normal fellow, kind and very enthusiastic when he does things, no matter what.”
Nadal then got older and started winning more and more tournaments which granted the Mallorcan large amounts of money. Sebastian Nadal, Rafael Nadal’s father, decided that it was time his son paid his coach out of his own earnings. Immediately Toni Nadal said no.
“I don’t want to receive money from Rafael,” and the reason for this was? “I want to be the boss.”
Receiving money from his nephew meant that his opinion would no longer carry the weight it once had. He insists that they always talk and there are times when they also argue. All their conversations however “are focused to improve our game and performance.”
If young Rafa was the boss, as disciplined as he may be, he might have been tempted to sack his coach and uncle. That however was never going to be the case.
As his Uncle Toni says “Yes you are good, but I am more intelligent than you.”
Nadal has often stated what a hard disciplinarian his uncle is, but has no problem with this action towards him.
Nadal tells The Guardian, “It’s important to have people around you with enough confidence to say if you are not acting in a good way. Normally, when you are at the top, people say everything is fantastic. Probably in that moment it is what you want to hear, but it’s best to be reminded how to act properly."
Nadal is constantly reminded how to act properly, as this was Toni’s motto from the start. Wherever Nadal goes whether it would be Disneyland or the dentist, he is allowed to cut cues. When he goes to a restaurant he never has to pay.
“It’s not normal everyone always telling you ‘yes, yes, yes,’” Toni says, “I’m here to tell him no.”
There is a fine example of this. One time Toni Nadal, Rafa and José Higueras, a former pro from Spain, were in an elevator going up to a restaurant. One of the staff members of the restaurant saw them and said that Rafa’s Capri pants are not part of the dress code.
However, seeing that it was Rafael Nadal the staff member welcomed Nadal in the restaurant anyway. This would not go down well with Uncle Toni. So he immediately sent Nadal down to change into better clothes.
Toni Nadal has helped his nephew become one of the most respected sports stars in the world. Although he knew Rafael had what it took to be a tennis great from a young age, that was not his first priority.
“I am happy when Rafael plays good tennis, but I take more pleasure when people say Rafael is a very good person,” Toni Nadal says. “For me, it is so much more important to be a good person.”
We can safely say that Uncle Toni has done an excellent job.
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