He may have trained the “Bull of Manacor”, but Toni Nadal would have preferred to do it without the lasso. “I don't like Rafael’s forehand technique,” he said in 2019. “I prefer Federer's more classic style. For years, I asked him to hit the ball a little further in front of him. I showed him videos of Federer, Djokovic, Verdasco… But he was fairly successful doing it his way.” Back on the professional circuit, Rafa’s uncle will now be able to train to the sound of the more conventional shots he likes so much. Since the official announcement on 8 April, he has begun working on his new partnership with Félix Auger-Aliassime. a carefully considered move which follows several months of discussions between the Spaniard and the Canadian.
“When he suggested working with him, I told him to come and spend 10 days at the Academy (the Rafa Nadal Academy, in Mallorca, where Toni Nadal is director),” revealed the coach during a video interview alongside his new protégé, transcribed by ATP. “The point was to get to know each other and see if I could be useful to him.” This 10-day trial took place in December 2020. “It went really well from the first training session,” said the Quebec player. Particularly as the two men share common values. “Respect, honesty and trust are essential to me,” added the current world number 22. “Toni ticks all of those boxes.” This view is shared by his new mentor.
“I couldn't have worked with someone who was disrespectful, without values,” added ‘Tio Toni’. “It’s a pleasure to work with someone like Felix.” Those values include wanting to help others. Since early 2020, for each point he has won in an official match, he donates $5 to the EduChange programme set up by the NGO Care, to help educate and protect children in Kara, a region of Togo where his father was born. Project partner BNP Paribas adds $15 per point as part of the #FAAPointForChange initiative. Toni Nadal is now also indirectly taking part in the project. The more he helps his student progress, the more points he will win.
FAA has found the experienced mentor he was looking for
And the stakes are high. If he were a mountaineer, Félix Auger-Aliassime would not be one to settle for Mont Blanc. He would want to plant his flag at the summit of Everest. “I want to improve every day to become the best possible player and, I hope, eventually win a Grand Slam trophy,” he explained at the end of November via video-conference. It is with this goal in mind that FAA – still in search of his first title on the main circuit, but already a seven-time finalist at just 20 years old – is now toiling away under the rigorous and demanding Toni Nadal. “It’s time for me to get some new advice,” he explained, again at the end of November, after parting ways with Guillaume Marx, one of his two coaches.
“This change opens the door to bringing in a mentor or advisor with very high level experience,” he added. “Someone who has worked with a Grand Slam winner or has won a Grand Slam himself.” While Frédéric Fontang remains head coach, Toni Nadal has joined the team for special occasions – a bit like that favourite suit you only take out for weddings. While remaining in his role as director of the Rafa Nadal Academy, “Toni will be present at the Grand Slam tournaments and a few other important events in the calendar,” explained Auger-Aliassime. Despite this limited presence, Nadal already has a plan in mind to take his disciple as far as possible.
“I wouldn’t be in either box, out of respect for both players”
“When we arrived on the circuit with Rafael, the situation was tricky, with a lot of high-quality young players like Federer, Roddick, Hewitt, Coria, Nalbandian, Ferrero, Safin, etc.,” he recalled. “Reaching the top seemed difficult, but we prepared for it so we could compete with them. I think Felix needs to do the same. A lot of very good players are establishing themselves at the moment. Felix will need to take on Medvedev, Zverev, Thiem, Tsitsipás and other even younger players who are coming up, like Alcaraz and Sinner. The competition will be fierce, but I think he’s up to it. (...) I will do my best to make sure that one day Felix becomes world number 1. I have no doubt about his ability to get there. But, for now, he still has work to do.”
Not one to keep his opinions to himself, Toni Nadal is regularly castigated for shouting out advice from his box in the middle of a match. This has earned him some warnings, however rare, for coaching. This will not be a problem for him in the event of a clash between Félix Auger-Aliassime and Rafael Nadal. “I obviously have a special affection for my nephew,” he admits. “If they do face each other one day, I won’t be in either box, out of respect for them. And if Rafael ever has to lose to someone, it might as well be to Felix.” It remains to be seen whether Toni Nadal would agree to give FAA a few tips ahead of such a duel, to prevent him being overwhelmed by the nephew’s famous lasso forehand.
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