Rafael Nadal Making the Right Move By Distancing Himself from Uncle Toni

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2017

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 15:  Raphael Nadal of Spain listens to coaches Tony Nadal (L) and Carlos Moya during a practice session ahead of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 15, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
Michael Dodge/Getty Images

The renaissance of Spanish tennis legend Rafael Nadal has been riding the undercurrents of a new direction from his deep-rooted past. The 14-time Grand Slam champion will forge ahead into 2017 with less influence from his coach and uncle, Toni Nadal.

It was Toni who announced that he would be stepping aside from the ATP circuit by the end of 2017 to devote time and development to young players at the new Rafael Nadal Academy in Mallorca. He also feels marginalized, telling Il Tennis Italiano (h/t the Telegraph): "The truth is that every year I am making fewer decisions, to the point that I won't be deciding anything any more!"

Toni's authoritative guidance of Nadal has spanned about a quarter century and through a glorious decade (2005-14) when he became arguably the greatest fighter and winner in tennis. But since his last French Open title in 2014, the former world No. 1 has been through a series of trials ranging from injuries, less confidence and more losses.

All the while, he remained loyal to Toni, now and then asserting his confidence in their teamwork despite the growing clamor that Nadal look for new life under somebody else's mentorship.

Then Nadal made the move in December to contact fellow Mallorcan and former Davis Cup teammate Carlos Moya. It appeared to be a safe move, a breath of fresh air that would not cause a sail to ripple let alone to make waves and rock the boat.

The result was a spectacular resurgence at the Australian Open last month when Nadal narrowly missed winning his 15th major title.

Whatever credit will be parceled out among the Nadal team, it's clear that he was revitalized. He hit bigger and deeper and showed some of his old mettle. There was a touch of the old Rafa but something new.

And now the biggest figure in Nadal's tennis life is making his impending departure; suddenly it feels like the right move for all concerned.

"When we travelled to Australia I had made the decision already," Toni told Spanish newspaper El Espanol (h/t ATP World Tour). "I have been thinking lately that it's getting tougher and tougher. I told my wife the decision…Rafael will be perfectly attended by Carlos Moya."

And so the green light for Moya has received its final and most important endorsement. Nadal will not be playing beneath the looming presence of his old-school uncle, but he will roar ahead with a fresh approach from a Spanish star who battled against Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 15:  Raphael Nadal of Spain listens to coach Carlos Moya during a practice session ahead of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 15, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
Michael Dodge/Getty Images


What Moya Will Mean to Rafa

Nadal's loyalty to Toni and his family is unquestioned. It was important that he tapped Moya, a respected champion of 20 titles, who won the 1998 French Open, briefly held the No. 1 ranking and has a great understanding of playing clay-court tennis. Rafa trusts Moya as a friend and former star.

I wrote about the Nadal-Moya merger in December as a good roll of the dice. Many of those objectives are being checked or polished. The Spaniard's recent momentum will be a greater boon for Moya's bold strokes.

There's no question that Moya has provided a spark, at least, to the veteran's run in Melbourne. How long will Moya's energy infuse Nadal's practice sessions, and will he push the right buttons for the legend to lift the Musketeers' Cup in June?

Kamakshi Tandon for Tennis.com reported that Moya had specialized drills for Nadal in practice while reducing time spent with hitting sessions, according to the coach's comments to Spanish newspaper El Espanol: "I believe a lot in specifics training. It's something I used with (Milos) Raonic, and adapting a lot of those exercises to Nadal is important because they are completely distinct players." Moya added: "We want to focus a lot on the repetition of what you have to do in matches."

The Australian Open was a great test, and it was passed with flying colors. Despite playing on a faster Plexicushion surface that aided many of his opponentsespecially FedererNadal played fearless tennis once again.

This "go-for-it" mentality is clearly the design that Moya, coach Francis Roig and the Nadal team has wanted to instill. Nadal didn't buckle on the baseline when the assaults came, and he was keen on using both sides of the court fueled with a more powerful backhand.

The Spanish star looked quicker and stronger. The old forehand had more depth, and his legs outlasted young guns Alexander Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov in physical matches. As long as Moya can get Nadal a proper sense of rest and prioritized peaks, he could burst forth in other big tournaments.

It's important to understand that some of the details from uncle Toni will be adjusted or rubbed out, and that Moya has the confidence to enact these wrinkles.

As a player, Moya played a patient-aggressive blend of tennis on clay, something that Nadal will need by the time the calendar turns to April.

Most of all, Moya has always expressed confidence in Nadal.

Moya was interviewed during the Australian Open on The Tennis Podcast with David Law, and he shared his vision and belief for Nadal (h/t the Telegraph):

I wanted to see how eager Rafa was to be back at the top. He proved to me that he was doing and will do anything in his power to be back at the top. He’s not that far away, and he has time. The young players are not ready to be Top 5 in the world yet so he has a couple of years to make it back. He needs to win a few matches now, just to get the extra 10 or 20% of confidence.  You can not change a 14-time Grand Slam champion when he is 30 years old, but he can evolve.

Maybe Moya will be a different kind of "supercoach" but every bit as important as Ivan Lendl to Andy Murray, Boris Becker to Novak Djokovic and Magnus Norman to Stan Wawrinka. He just helped Milos Raonic to the Wimbledon final and No. 3 ranking, but his belief in Nadal is special.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 10:  Rafael Nadal of Spain talks to coach Carlos Moya during a practice session ahead of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 10, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
Michael Dodge/Getty Images


Nadal the Protege

It's not like Nadal has always been in lock step with everything Toni advised. Nadal wryly pointed out in his autobiography, Rafa (written with John Carlin), that he continued to eat chocolate croissants during his maiden run to the 2005 French Open title despite his uncle's warning that it would be his undoing.

Or go back further to Nadal's youthful years as described in his autobiography (h/t the Telegraph), an emerging adolescent seeking to find his own freedom while maintaining his love and respect for his uncle and teacher. The words echo from a bygone period, but they are perhaps never more applicable than the new start he seeks late in his adult career:

What I am trying to teach myself now is to tilt the balance the other way, to exercise more autonomy over my life and disagree more openly with him. This may be a consequence, in part, of me seeing that Toni has his doubts and insecurities too; that he contradicts himself often; that he is not the all-knowing magician of my childhood.

Nadal and his uncle will always share their bond, but he will embrace a familiar-but-new voice in Moya. He is willing to play a new role, outside of his most faithful elder. He's also more likely to shed the staleness that had crept into his on-off injury problems and his traditionally conservative style.

And even if cutting some ties with his uncle is no more than a symbolic liberation, Nadal will play more freelyat least in the short termas he puts his hopes into the red-clay journey from Monte Carlo to Roland Garros.

Win or lose, Nadal will play with renewed swagger. He's the dark knight returning to battle, the King of Clay plotting to stampede through Roland Garros for one last French Open crown.