After winning his 10th French Open title, Rafael Nadal thanked his uncle Toni (who too was presented with a trophy on the podium) for all the things that he has done for him. He admitted that without him, winning even one French Open would be impossible.
Nadal started playing tennis when he was just four years old, and since then, Uncle Toni’s advice has helped the Spaniard scale new heights. “Toni was tough on me right from the start, tougher than on the other children. He demanded a lot of me, pressured me hard. He’d use rough language, he’d shout a lot, he’d frighten me – especially when the other boys didn’t turn up and it was just the two of us. If I saw I’d be alone with him when I arrived for training, I’d get a sinking feeling in my stomach,” Nadal wrote in his autobiography, Rafa: My Story.
Indeed, the training was hard and Uncle Toni focussed on two things: hitting the ball hard and endurance. He would tell Nadal, “First, hit the ball hard; then we’ll see about keeping it in.” If Nadal faltered, or showed signs of complacency, Uncle Toni didn’t mince words. “The balls might be third rate but you are fourth rate,” Uncle Toni would say when Rafa would complain about the quality of balls.
When Rafael would win tournaments as a kid, Uncle Toni wouldn’t celebrate. There was a time when Nadal returned after emerging victorious in a tournament in South Africa, and his family had made preparations to celebrate. A banner was hung, only to be snatched off by Uncle Toni. He didn’t want Nadal to feel like he has done something great. He asked Nadal to come for practice the next day, and gave his godmother and grand-parents a talking-to. “Are you crazy? What are you trying to do to Rafael? You’ll ruin him. Don’t give what he does so much importance,” he said.
Years later, Uncle Toni still cared a lot about Nadal and treated him like a child. His number one worry was that Nadal would let all that success get to his head. So he would always try his level best to keep his nephew grounded. Even when he won, Uncle Toni would criticize him and probed him to do better. “One day early on in the French Open, he and I were strolling side by side with Carlos Costa down a wide Paris sidewalk. I was walking in the middle, with Toni and Carlos on either side. Suddenly Toni stopped. “Wait a minute. We can’t have this.” Carlos and I looked at him, puzzled and mildly irritated, as if to say, “What now?” he said. “Can’t have what?” “You, Rafael, walking in the middle like that.” In Toni’s mind we were conveying the message to passersby that I was the special one of the three, as if he and Calos were my bodyguards, or courtiers. Carlos, who is less patient with Toni than I am, began to remonstrate. “For heaven’s sake, Toni…” But my attitude in moments like these is “anything for a bit of peace.” So I succumbed to Toni’s whim and took my place on the outside of our threesome, as he wished,” Nadal wrote in his autobiography.
This year, Nadal announced that Uncle Toni would stop travelling with him from next year. This is not because there is a rift between the two. “Relations with my nephew are still excellent. During all these years, we have never been through a crisis. Until he was 17 years old, it was me who decided everything. Then Carlos Costa arrived as manager. Then his father became closer, each having his opinions. And the truth is that every year I had less decision-making, until the day when I will decide on nothing,” Uncle Toni told reporters.
Even Nadal appreciated this decision, and said, “Probably it’s the moment to focus on other priorities and he said that the academy is one of these ones. It’s a very ambitious project and also we don’t have to forget that he has a family, three kids and two of them play tennis.”