Rafael Nadal will split ways with his longtime coach, Uncle Toni, at the end of the 2017 season, according to an interview Toni Nadal gave to the website Il Tennis Italiano over the weekend. Instead of traveling with his nephew, Toni Nadal said he will spend next season overseeing the Nadals’ tennis academy in Mallorca.
On Tuesday, Uncle Toni confirmed the news to the AFP, saying, “The decision has been mine.” However, the timing of the announcement and Toni’s own words leave plenty of room to speculate about how smoothly this transition is actually playing out.
According to ESPN’s translation of the interview, Uncle Toni said, “Until [Rafael] was 17 years old, it was me who decided everything. 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.”
That doesn’t sound like someone who is willingly accepting a diminished role in his star’s life and career. So was Uncle Toni pushed out? Did the presence of newly hired coach Carlos Moya, brought on in December to help Nadal climb out of a two-year slump, make ol’ Uncle Toni superfluous? Is he saving face?
It seems unlikely that Nadal, a creature of weird and extreme habits, would want to drop Uncle Toni from the team. In fact, at the Australian Open last month, he reiterated that his coach was, first and foremost, Uncle Toni. He said:
More than anything, you know, my uncle is my coach. He is a person that is decisive in my career, so I need to talk with him before taking any of these decisions. I will never take a decision like this if Toni is not happy with.
First of all is the stability for me, so important. Toni is happy with. I am happy with that decision, too. Everybody’s happy because Carlos is a friend of the rest of my team. We know each other. Carlos knows all my team because my team is the same one since 15 years old.
Plus, Uncle Toni also told the AFP that what matters most is that “things go well for Rafa,” noting that “the incorporation of Carlos has been a great success.” Pundits including John McEnroe have long called for Nadal to hire a new coach. In July 2015, McEnroe said, “[Nadal] plays with a lot of effort and energy but, dare we say, is it time for some fresh blood in the Nadal camp? Can we say that? Uncle Toni’s going to be upset.”
McEnroe may have been on to something. After hiring fellow Spaniard Moya late last year, Nadal made it to the Australian Open final before losing a five-set instant classic to Roger Federer.
Uncle Toni also said Nadal was not expecting him to leave his role as coach, the AFP reported:
“He was a little bit surprised at the start, but we have explained it to him well.
“I have told him he is well looked after. Rafael has always taken things well, he is not the problematic type.”
Uncle Toni could be hedging his bets. If Nadal wins a slam this year with Moya on the team, Uncle Toni will probably, if reluctantly, step away to focus on the academy.
And if the partnership with Moya doesn’t last, Uncle Toni will be there, right where he’s always been.