With the end of 2017 tennis season, Rafael Nadal and Toni Nadal will finally call time on a partnership that was unlike any other in the modern game. Uncle Toni was Rafael’s first coach, giving him his first lesson at age 3 and has remained Rafael’s mentor for the last 28 years – guiding him on his journey to becoming one of the greatest tennis players of all time.

While his rivals would rifle through the coaches, Rafa and Uncle Toni were a constant. Always there, always together and somehow, always finding a way to win. Over the years, they almost never had a public falling out – something that tells us more about their upbringing than anything else.

Still, what exactly did Uncle Toni teach Nadal... we dug up some old interviews to bring our readers a collection of some interesting moments that went into the making of Rafa and show why this partnership was so special:

‘That sinking feeling’

“All that tension in every single coaching session, right from the start, has allowed me today to face up to the difficult moments in a match with more self-control than might otherwise have been the case. Toni did a lot to build that fighting character people say they see in me on court,” Nadal wrote in his book ‘Rafa: My Story’.

He would often go back home crying. Toni had a habit of calling him ‘mummy’s boy’ and he would constantly taunt the young Rafa.

“He’d use rough language, 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.”

The left-hand legend

Did Uncle Toni ask Rafa to play with his left hand whereas he’s a natural right-hander?

“No! That’s a legend… But it’s really not the truth. At the start, he played with two hands but using one hand to direct. I had the impression that he was stronger on his left side than on his right side. So, I figured that he was left-handed; it’s as simple as that. Besides, even if he ate with his right hand, he also played football with his left foot. However, at no point did I tell him: “He needs to play with his left hand because that way, he will be much stronger.” However, since I’m not completely stupid, I simply advised him to use his strongest hand. That’s it. Besides, I don’t think that it’s that much more advantageous to be left-handed. Just look at the world’s best players: there are not many of them there. No, the only thing I did advise Rafa was that at the age of 10, he needed to stop playing his forehand with two hands because no top player had a two-handed forehand and I couldn’t imagine my nephew being the first. So, this is all there is to this story. Would Rafa be as strong now if he used his right hand? That’s something we don’t know and we will never know.”

(H/T Tennis Magazine, 2010)

Magic powers

“Yes (smiles). Rafa was the little boy in the family and everybody always had so much fun with him. As a joke, I made him believe all sorts of things: that I was a star at AC Milan, that I had won the Tour de France five times with a moped (laughs)…Indeed, I also told him that I had magical powers,” said Uncle Toni in an interview.

“One day, he must have been about 7 or 8, we lacked a player in the 12-year group to compete in a team event. I took him along with us and to reassure him, I told him that he didn’t need to worry if the match if went badly because I have the ability to make it rain. It was winter. So, when the match got tight at the start, it started to rain and then, Rafa turned to me and said: ‘It’s alright, you can make it stop now, I’m going to win!’.”

Another time, we were watching a match of Ivan Lendl on tv. It was a replay of an older match during which Lendl retired. Rafa didn’t know that. So, at the exact moment when Lendl retired, I told him: ‘Alright, I’m going to make Lendl lose.’ He couldn’t believe his eyes. I have a lot of examples like that.”

Taking responsibility

In his autobiography, Nadal recounted an incident: “One very hot day I went to a match without my bottle of water. I’d left it at home. He could have gone and bought me one, but he didn’t. So that I’d learn to take responsibility, he said. Why didn’t I rebel? Because I enjoyed tennis, and enjoyed it all the more once I started winning, and because I was an obedient and docile child. My mother says I was too easy to manipulate.”

Understanding tennis

In the interview to the Tennis magazine in 2010, Toni had revealed exactly what he set out to achieve.

“Even as a kid, Rafa had to be the master of his own tennis decisions. After that, my philosophy as a coach is not to tell a player: ‘you have to hit that ball this or that way because that’s the way that shot is played.’ That’s wrong and you can see how so many players have so many different techniques. I will rather tell a player: ‘It doesn’t matter how you take that ball, but you need to hit it there with this speed and that sort of effect.’ What I mean is that you have to look beyond technique. First of all, you need to know and understand the game.”

Good behaviour

“He was always a very good pupil, because he was disciplined, I did not have to demand that,” Toni said. “We have a relationship that is different to other players because I can talk about behaviour in a way that someone else could not tell him. The people look at him and see a guy who always plays with a big illusion [light]. Before he played, I saw on television so many players who went out with a bad face. I detested that. Rafael wants to win but he wins with good manners.

“I said to him from the time he was very young ‘Rafael, you must play always with a good face. It is impossible to learn with a bad face.’ I say to my own kids [Toni has three children], long faces are not for us, there are people in Africa who have big problems. We don’t have problems, or if we do, they are only little ones.

“I say to Rafael sometimes when he misses a shot and has a long face – ‘You are not too good yet, you must still learn, the ball has gone out, it is only one thing.’

“Rafael has never thrown his racket. For me it is unbelievable how some people treat what they are given. He has never trodden the backs of his shoes, he gets them for nothing and yet for other people, they cost €100 [about £70]. There are players who have their rackets strung, they don’t use the racket and they go back the next day to have them strung again. That is bad.”

(H/T Independent)

Finally, on learning:

“I’m interested, most of all, in the question of learning,” Toni Nadal, 58, said. “For me the only thing that makes me stand out from some other coaches is that when I go into the locker room, as I did just now, I might tell Rafa he played very well, but my idea is always what can we do to make him better, even better. I’m telling him, look at Federer, look at the way he’s playing. You need to be more at the net. You need to be more aggressive from the start, and this approach I’ve applied to everything in my own life. It’s a question of principle, really.

“Progress is what distinguishes humans from the rest of the animals on the planet. A lion. I think his behavior is the same for the last 5,000 years or however many years. Humans have improved, or at least the majority have, and that’s what makes us who we are. We are evolving. That’s the way it works, and that’s what I’ve managed to inculcate in Rafael. Sometimes he’s listened better than at other times, but there’s nothing more to life than that.”

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