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Should we be celebrating Rafael Nadal's split with Uncle Toni?

  • ontennis
  • 14 February 2017
  • 11:02

Toni Nadal was tasked with the job of training and grooming his nephew since the day the future world No. 1 first showed promise. Toni would perform his job dutifully, with complete control of his young protégé's life. It was Toni's life's work, and roughly 25 years later, it appears to be finished.

Toni was an avowed disciplinarian. Even after Rafael Nadal had earned a measure of fame, Toni demanded his pupil sweep their practice court before and after sessions. He forbade Rafael to jam his feet in and out of the shoes that he got for free without using the laces, because most people would never abuse shoes they paid for.

Toni made every tennis-related decision in Nadal's life until Rafael was 17 years old, and his role remained paramount thereafter. Toni became a fixture in the player-guest boxes around the world. His identity was unmistakable with a baseball cap blatantly advertising a Spanish hotel chain dutifully pulled low on his brow.

It was a unique and extremely successful relationship. Nadal won all 14 of his Grand Slam titles under the tutelage and watchful eye of his uncle. Starting in mid-2014, though, injury and a slump drove Nadal off the rails for about 2½ years. The slump was complicated by a mental dimension, an uncharacteristic lack of confidence.

Uncle Toni was with Rafael Nadal throughout each of his 14 Grand Slam title runs. But just weeks after a surprising resurgence sent Nadal to the Australian Open final, where he fell to Roger Federer in five sets, the late-career makeover of Nadal took an intriguing turn. Toni, 55, declared he'll soon be done traveling and coaching his nephew. Instead, he will concentrate on running their tennis academy. It's a seismic event in Nadal's career.

"Until [Rafael] was 17 years old, it was me who decided everything," Toni said to the website tennisitaliano.it. "Then Carlos Costa arrived as manager. Then [Rafael's] 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."

Nadal has been faring well, with or without strong input from Toni. He is 8-2 on the season. His run in Melbourne was his first major final in nearly three seasons, and he may once again be healthy for his cherished French Open -- a year after leaving the tournament in tears, unbeaten, but with a wrist injury.

The immediate question this raises: Is this a more appropriate time for Toni to celebrate Nadal's resurgence, or to complain about losing power and control over his 30-year old nephew's fate?

Last December, Nadal added "supercoach" Carlos Moya. He was not just a former No. 1 and French Open champion, but a fellow Mallorcan, friend and mentor. The addition created the ideal opportunity for Toni to step back gracefully, if that's what he desired to do. The academy job would only make it easier. It would be like saying, "Move along, folks. Nothing to see here."

It didn't play out like that. Instead, it appears that Uncle Toni went rogue.

Toni Nadal has always spoken in a frank, dispassionate way. But it's still hard to overlook the bitter undercurrent in some of his words and the odd timing of his announcement. His comments torpedo the veneer of togetherness the Nadals strive to maintain. Just weeks ago, Rafael said this to the press at the Australian Open, regarding his decision to add Moya to his team: "More than anything, you know, my uncle is my coach, I will never take a decision like this if Toni is not happy with it."

It's impossible to imagine Nadal lying about this -- or, in light of all this, Toni having been "happy with it." The way this is playing out implies that the Nadal makeover may be a more comprehensive and dynamic enterprise that it first appeared. And that may be good news for Nadal fans who thought the close friendship between Nadal and Moya would be an impediment in making painful but necessary changes.

That such changes were necessary seemed evident to many outside the Nadal camp. His struggles over the past two-plus years suggested he had finally hit a wall he could not ram through. At first the wall was Novak Djokovic, then it became many different players. Suddenly, things that worked so well when Nadal was 24 weren't getting the job done for him as he closed on 30.

Word spread. Perhaps Nadal needed to make tweaks or some major changes. Maybe Toni, or the team, was too set in its ways. Some cried for a coaching change. In June of 2015, John McEnroe told the Spanish newspaper, Marca, "It's time to ask if [Nadal] needs fresh stuff in his team. He needs a new coach. He should find external help that would complete what his uncle has already taught him. Like Boris Becker and Djokovic."

McEnroe proved prescient; Moya came on board.

Nadal downplayed the significance of the partnership. Now we have to wonder if that wasn't just to placate Toni, as he was gently being squeezed out. Perhaps that "day when I decide on nothing" Toni mentioned arrived when Moya signed on, and so the uncle went rogue.

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