PARIS — The history of tennis is cluttered with family-run coaching experiments — some successful, some disastrous — and mostly has involved parents overseeing their children, from Gloria Connors to Richard Williams to Judy Murray.
Few coaching partnerships have been as effective and enduring as the uncle-nephew tandem of Toni and Rafael Nadal.
An instructor both in tennis and life to Rafael from the age of 3, Toni’s lifelong stewardship has helped build one of the most prolific tennis careers ever. It includes four Davis Cup titles, two Olympic gold medals, the No. 1 ranking and 14 Grand Slam titles, including an unprecedented nine at the French Open.
Equally rare is the coaching-student relationship that lasts the entire arc of a player’s competitive trajectory, from prodigy to long-established champion.
“Toni is the most important person in my tennis career without a doubt,” Rafael Nadal, who advanced to Sunday’s fourth round of the French Open as the No. 4 seed, said Wednesday.
That unique dynamic is undergoing a transition.
In February, Toni Nadal announced that he would step aside as Rafael’s primary coach at the end of the year to concentrate on nurturing talent at the newly opened Rafa Nadal Academy in the family’s native island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean. Carlos Moya, the former No. 1 and fellow Mallorcan, already had been added to Rafael’s team in December, along with established part-time coach Francisco Roig.
The impending transition adds particular resonance to their 13th journey to Paris, where they have left an indelible imprint on the only Grand Slam played on clay.
“Maybe if he pays the ticket, I go” again, Toni joked this past week.
If his principal coaching role will change, few expect the 57-year-old with the calm mien and folksy charm to fade into the shadows. Toni quickly emphasized that if his nephew calls, he would of course make the trip.
There was pride and poignancy, however, when he explained that Rafael, who turned 31 on Saturday, doesn’t need his presence to succeed.
Toni’s influence spans a lifetime.
Toni Nadal shrewdly convinced his nephew to play with his left hand when he abandoned a double-handed forehand as a child, though Rafael still eats and writes with his right hand. He preached the ethic of hard work and constant improvement. He never let Rafael forget he was a person first and a tennis player second.
“I say hundred of times,” Rafael said, “but he’s my uncle more than my coach.”
With Toni, lessons on and off the court always carried a larger message.
Speaking to a small group of reporters this past week, Toni recounted the time Rafael won his first junior Spanish championship. He was 11.
Toni’s next move? It wasn’t praise. It was perspective.
He phoned the Spanish Tennis Federation and asked them to mail him a list of the previous 25 champions of that same tournament (there was no Internet at that time, he reminded the group).
When it arrived, he sat his nephew down to peruse the list of names. A few stuck out — an Albert Costa here, a Sergi Bruguera there — but most were unknowns.
“This,” Toni told him, “is the possibility you have.”
Thus, Toni passed on, in plain terms, a tutorial on the dangers of complacency.
“It is difficult to improve when you are completely satisfied,” Toni said.
In the tightknit Nadal clan, Toni always has operated within a system of honesty, tough love and mutual respect.
Not that he and Rafael don’t go at it at times.
“They are going to survive a bad match, a bad run, a bad fight, a disagreement of opinion,” said Tennis Channel commentator Justin Gimelstob, who has twice visited Rafael’s childhood stomping grounds on Mallorca.
He added that, over 27 years, Toni’s wealth of knowledge — a kind of “ownership” — of Rafael’s game is one few coaches ever achieve.
Unlike many filial coaching ventures, their relationship has thrived because they are a step removed from the more typical arrangement, Gimelstob added.
“It’s family, but it doesn’t come with the same emotional dynamics as a parent,” he said.
Toni insists it is talent that has made Rafael the most successful man in history on clay. Earlier this spring, he surpassed Guillermo Vilas’s record of 49 clay titles. Rafael now has 52.
But the exacting Toni clarified his definition.
“What is talent?” he said. “Talent is the capacity of work.”
Talent has paid off. Following two seasons in which Rafael struggled with confidence and injuries, Toni and Rafael sat down at the Mallorca Academy, which opened in October, to strategize a comeback.
Toni told Rafael he had to improve his serve, shore up his competitive attitude and most of all restore the punch to his lethal forehand, which allows him to dictate points and pummel opponents into submission. At times the past few seasons, his whipsaw forehand missed its mark, often at crucial moments.
This year, he is unleashing it with deadly precision.
A resilient return on hard courts this year, including a runner-up finish to Roger Federer at the Australian Open, set him up for his favored clay, on which he already has won three titles this spring.
Rafael upped his record to 20-1 on the surface this year by crushing Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia, 6-0, 6-1, 6-0, in 90 minutes Friday. He advanced to the French Open’s fourth round, where he will face fellow Spaniard and No. 17 seed Roberto Bautista Agut .
He hasn’t dropped a set in Paris, and Friday’s victory pushed his five-set record on clay to an astounding 98-2.
“The forehand is so much better,” Toni said.
So is his ability to pull out matches when he’s struggling with his form.
Moya, the 1998 French Open winner, cited Rafael’s five-set defeat of rising star Alexander Zverev of Germany in the third round of the Australian Open as a “turning point” this season.
“One of the best things he’s been doing this year is to compete,” Moya said.
Toni played down the idea that ending a chapter that started when Nadal won his first French Open as a leaping, fist-pumping teenager in 2005 was anything special.
Still, winning a 10th title — “La Decima” — would be an important milestone after a three-year Grand Slam drought. Rafael’s most recent major win was here in 2014.
“It’s a little different because the last two years Rafael hasn’t won a Grand Slam,” he said.
Whatever the result in Paris, neither expects major alternations to their relationship. Watching Moya ease into his new role has helped Toni let go of some responsibility.
But change is change.
Andy Murray, whose mother, Judy, coached him as a youngster, said he expected Toni to stay involved in Rafael’s career, even if he will be less present on the road.
“I’m sure there will be a small period of adjustment for Rafa, as well, because he’s used to looking up into his box and seeing Toni there,” said Murray, the world’s top-ranked player. “He’s been the one constant in his career.”
The Spanish star isn’t about to allow nostalgia to create any blind spots with another championship on the line.
“I cannot be thinking if Toni is leaving or not leaving,” Rafael said.
Toni is not fretting over his decision.
He said he would be just as content watching the sun come up over the sea in Mallorca and teaching the next generation of talent at the family’s academy as he would be wandering the streets of Paris or seeing Rafael, in his signature gesture, sink his teeth into another Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy at Roland Garros in another week.
“When I am in Paris I am very, very happy,” Toni said, recalling a recent meandering stroll from Montmartre to Notre-Dame Cathedral to the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district. “But at home I am very happy, too.”
“I try to be happy everywhere,” he added. “Here or there.”
A perfect ending to 2017? Toni smiled widely. His answer — simple, direct, ambitious — befit the man.
“To win Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open,” he laughed.