Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Uncle Toni Nadal in conversation at the 2012 Australian Open Coaches Conference...

"Uncle Toni" has become legendary in tennis circles. He is the coach of Rafael Nadal, one of the greatest tennis players in the world. He is possibly most well known for coaching 'Rafa' since he was 4 years old and is still his main coach to the present day.

Toni was posed questions from the audience which he responded to in Spanish and then they were translated for us. This is the only way I could write so quickly!

Is there anything you did with Rafa at the age of 4 or 5 years of age that is linked to what you do with him now?

The first thing I do in tennis and in life is to do everything very simple. All sports are very simple. All sports a game and some coaches make it difficult. A very simple system. Play points. If he make a mistake on the forehand, we practise the forehand, if he make a mistake on the backhand, we practise the backhand. For me it is very important that the player understands the game. The game is not the same if you have the luck to have a player like Rafael or Roger. See what the attitude of the player is and from there .. Apply the basic principles of tennis: Hit the ball when it is rising. Understand the pathway the player has to make.

What skills did Rafa get from playing football that he has now has taken to tennis? 

Playing different sports when you're young is good. Football has helped his footwork.

Is it true that Rafa  was a right handed player and you changed him?

No. When he started, he played both sides with both hands and soccer with his left foot. I am not very clever so i think he  must be left-handed too. But he is right handed. And now the only thing he can do with his left is play tennis. Everything else right handed - brushing his teeth, playing golf etc.

Has every tennis session been delivered with full intensity from a young age?

For me it was always important to work with a lot of intensity. Rafa has always been an intense person. A player who is complicated. He is not sure if he has the ability, the skill. So he wasn't sure if he had coordination or not. In football he didn't look good but he could do good things with the ball. When he played tennis he always did strange things. So i believe it is important for rafa maybe. For Roger it is different.

Were you tough on Rafa mentally when he was young?

I was a hard coach mentally. Not always a coach of giving good news. I wanted to let him know he was not always the best player so he always had something to work for.

When did he go to one hand and was it guided by you?

Until he was ten years old, he played two hands on both sides and then the change. If we trained for two hours we would practise for twenty mins one hand. After four years he could do one hand.

How did you keep him so humble?

Rafa is not very humble. He is just the same as you. The only difference is that Rafa  is number two in the world but you are not there yet . If there is a tennis player who continues to win and is not humble he is an idiot. Because he cannot keep on winning. Rafa good at only one thing - tennis. In everything else he is normal. 

What, for you, is Rafas's greatest achievement? 

Of course, Melbourne. No, Wimbledon 2008....The first French... And Melbourne because many people said he couldn't win on hard courts. 

Why did Rafa not play ITF junior tournaments? 

I didn't think the most important thing was to play ITF. Keep it simple. Play in Spain. I was looking for him to play good quality matches. We are lucky in Spain because there are lots of Futures tournaments. The only junior event I wanted him to do was Wimbledon because we never had seen a grass court so it was important to see a grass court. Australia was too far away. The French open was at same time as school exams. If you are always playing people slightly above you that is good and then you can progress. 

Any comments on Rafa s grip? Did it affect his ability to go from clay to grass? 

It was easier to go from clay to grass than it was from clay to hard court.  

Was there a difficulty in coaching a family member? 

Hard for Rafa as I was too tough. Hard for me as no money. One advantage as I have more investment in him as family member. But on the other side I am more like a father because we are very close. You want them to succeed but sometimes you are scared or worried and you sometimes put more pressure on the player because they are a family member. 

What physical training did Rafa do at a young age? 

He didn't do a lot of physical work as a young teenager. I am a coach from the olden days. I don't believe a lot in the physical work. I believe on doing it on the court for two reasons. One we don't have very much time. He didn't have a lot of time because of football, school etc. He did more when he started on the ATP tour. Also if they train hard on the court then they don't have to train so hard off the court. I have a friend who drives to the golf course and drives back and then comes home and goes walking on his treadmill. Some players train like they are walking and then have to go for a run afterwards. There is no need if you train hard on the court. 

What sort of on court hours was Nadal doing when he was younger? 

Can't remember exactly but he trained more before than he does now. So six days per week but not when he was ten as he did football as well. So when he was twelve he would have played six days per week about 2.5 hours per day and tournaments. 

What next for you? Do you think you will take on another professional player?

I would like to work with some kids. With a group of boys. There is one thing which is difficult when you are coaching professional players. The player starts to think you are their servant. You take them the rackets, get them strung,  get the water. Rafa does all of those things himself so no one else would want me as a coach. <Laughter> When you do the work that is not the work of a coach the problem there is that when the player becomes accustomed to it. A coach should not do this for two reasons. One, there must be respect because the coach is older. And two you have to have the authority to say to the player what you believe. 

Do you think that the way Rafa trains and plays has led to injuries and do you have any ways to manage that? 

I am going to say one thing. Many times people speak about this. I have never spoken about this because it is not interesting. He had an injury in 2005 which was very serious. The doctor say he can not play more. He has a congenital problem in his foot. So he had to put orthotics in his shoes to change the way he lands with his feet. So because of having the orthotics, this has caused some problems in his knees, in his back. So even though he has had injuries, the year he won Australian Open 2009, we couldn't funish a single training session in December because of the pain. He couldn't finish one training session in the whole month of December because of the pain in his foot. So the doctor that told him says he cannot understand how he can still play. Now we train less. In 2005 we thought we might be able to last two more years but now it is 2012 and still we are here. 

Can you answer the following 3 questions? 1 does Rafa use a 4 and one quarter grip size? 2 does He wears his shoes one size too small? 3 does he wears comfie undies? (in reference to his pant pulling habits) 

1 I don't know what grip size he uses.  
2 I don't know. 
3 Even when he was young he was always very nervous and he always .... After the Verdasco match in 2009 ...we were warming up in Margaret court ... After fifteen minutes ha had soreness in his calves...sore head....sore shoulder...when it was all going so bad he said let's stop training....I say it is looking bad .... And rafa said everything is hurting and I said, don't tell me your stories. And rafa said don't tell me it is easy. I say, I know it's not easy otherwise I would have done it myself. And let me tell you that in two hours after the final you will feel even worse. But for you, you will never be so close to winning the Australian open as you are now. And Rafa responded agaain, for you everything is easy. And I said I know everything is not easy but one thing I am sure of: if you had someone pointing a gun at you, you would not stop running no matter how sore you were. So it all depends on you and the motivation you can find to win.  

At the end of the day, we thought Rafa was fresher in the fifth set than Roger. So the motivation is such a special thing. Roger is a better player but sometimes you can beat him with motivation. If you were selecting players to coach, would you look at them as an athlete first and tennis player second, or would you look at their tennis first and then their athletic potential?  I am not very smart. I would look to see who is winning. I am always looking and in this life I try and copy. Sometimes I copy badly. But look at the best- 

- Novak excellent coordination and great condition. 
- Murray also coordinated and great hands and power. 
- Federer also. 

The difference between the good and the very good is their eye. It is the player who can see the play early. In 2006 I was in Wimbledon and we were moving from the practice courts we were walking and we stopped to have a look at a guy who was playing on court 18. I didn't know who it was. I watched for ten to fifteen minutes. I went to see Rafa in the locker room and I say to him, we have a problem. Who was the player? Novak Djokovic. I had not seen him before this time. When you see a player like Novak or Murray you can see they have potential for the future. The primary characteristic is the best players look like they can control the time. This is the key characteristic in spotting talent. 

How can you have played with him every day and he did not pick up your kind of technique? 

When I played, I was a level two player in Spain. So I had it clear that Rafa  had to do the exact opposite of what I had done if he was going to make it. I was a hard player but I never won the point. I passed the ball very well but couldn't finish the point. For this reason I practised with Rafa  making him play winners off the forehand from the start. The clear idea was to do the opposite of what I had done. This can be a problem with coaches is that they want the players to do what they have done. You need to let your tennis and player evolve. Different eras, different play. The next generation will play different again. So the coach must forget what they have done themselves. You always have to think about where the game is going to evolve and where it is going to be. When Rafa was eleven, I would train him for what I thought he would need when he was twenty. Which is why when Rafa was fourteen, I had not much interest in the ITF tournaments.   

Thank you very much Uncle Toni for all of those insights!

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