There is a story Toni Nadal likes to tell. When his nephew and student, Rafael Nadal, won the Spanish Championships when he was 11 years old, Toni wanted to make sure he never got too satisfied by what he had just achieved.
He called the Spanish Tennis Federation, got the list of the past 25 champions of that tournament and started listing the names to Rafa, many of which were unrecognizable.
“At the end, there were only like five names we knew out of the 25. I told him ‘this is the possibility that you have’,” recalls Toni.
“When Rafael won the first Roland Garros, I did the same thing. Before, I thought that Carlos Moya can win more than one Roland Garros, Juan Carlos Ferrero too. But at the end, they didn’t win more. And that’s what I told Rafael. It’s difficult to improve when you are completely satisfied with what you have achieved. We have to try to improve and be better every year, and even sometimes that’s not enough.”
Rafa’s relationship with Toni as his life-long coach has been the cornerstone of the Spaniard’s career. Together, they’ve won 14 Grand Slam titles and smashed countless records.
This fortnight, it will be their last hurrah together at Roland Garros, as Toni will stop traveling with Rafa after the end of this season. Rafa is attempting to win a mythical 10th French Open crown, which would be the perfect parting gift for his uncle in Paris.
Surely this last outing with Rafa here in the French capital has a special feel to it, no?
“No, not at all. For me it’s not special,” Toni told reporters at the Lavazza Lounge at the VIP Village of Roland Garros.
“Maybe it could be special next year when I’m at home in Mallorca watching Rafael play on Philippe Chatrier, maybe that’s going to be special for me. Because maybe when I’m at home I can think ‘woah, last year I was in Paris’. I’m very happy to be here, and I’m very happy too when I’m at home.”
Much has been made of Rafa’s attempt to complete an unprecedented ‘La Decima’ at Roland Garros. He has tried to grab that 10th title in each of his last two appearances in Paris, but lost in the quarter-finals to Novak Djokovic in 2015, and withdrew due to a wrist injury before his third round last year.
The tennis world is waiting to see if Rafa can pull it off this fortnight, but for Toni, the number ‘10’ is “nothing special”.
“When we arrived here after winning the final against (Mariano) Puerta (in 2005), I thought ‘wow, this is so good, we have won Roland Garros’. A dream many players work hard to achieve and we have done it,” said the Mallorcan coach.
“I thought ‘okay, we have this trophy now’. Then when we arrived the following year, we tried to not to think about 2005. But when he arrived here, Rafael was very nervous. When we arrived in 2007, it was the same, we didn’t think about the previous two Roland Garros. And for me it was special when he won the third. It was special when he won the fourth.
“There is a bigger difference between one and two, than between nine and 10. Between nine and 10 is only 11 per cent. From one to two is 50 per cent. Two of three is 33 per cent. And then is 25 per cent. This is the difference.
“Rafael’s life will not change if he wins this tournament for a 10th time. For us it was very important to win nine times here but it was important too when he won the eighth, seventh, sixth, or fifth…”
It has been three years since Rafa has won a Grand Slam title, with his last success coming at the 2014 French Open. Toni acknowledges that this drought makes things a bit different for them in their pursuit of a 10th crown here.
“For this yes, maybe. A little different, because in the last two years, Rafael hasn’t won a Grand Slam. But I know that every good player, McEnroe, Connors, I dunno… Bjorn Borg… there’s a moment when they couldn’t win another Grand Slam,” explained the 56-year-old.
“I don’t think about that too much. Now we’re here. Rafael I think is one of the favourites of this tournament – one of them. That’s good. I hope that Rafael can play very good these two weeks and if he can win this tournament it would be very special and very good but just like any year.”
Rafa’s road back to what appears to be his top form has been a long and winding one over the past three years.
“He had many problems, in his knees, his wrist, then he had a problem in his mind,” is how Toni describes it.
While fixing injuries is more about science, facts, rehab, and recovery, fixing a mental problem is far more complicated.
How did they manage to put Rafa’s mental issues behind him?
“I remember last year when he decided to stop, we had a meeting in the academy. He said ‘we have to talk’. I said ‘good, what do you have to do for next year?’” says Toni.
“First he told me ‘until my wrist is better, I won’t come back’.
“‘Okay, then what do we have to do next year? We have to recover your forehand, you have to play your forehand harder, you have to improve your serve. You have to change because life has changed and the game gets faster and faster every year’.
“Then I said ‘you have to change your face. You have to be competitive every tournament. It’s the same if you have problems or not. If you can make this, then you have no reason not to be again at the top, but you have to make these changes. It’s your problem, you have to make these changes or not, do what you want’.
“And I think he has changed all of these things and for these reasons he’s again a very good player.”
Toni says he always believed that once Rafa recovered his mental strength, he would be able to return to the top of the game.
The 30-year-old – 31 next week – is currently No1 in the Race to London and No4 in the world rankings. He has won Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Madrid in recent weeks, and reached the Australian Open final last January.
He ended his seven-match losing streak to Djokovic in Madrid earlier this month, which surely must have been a psychological win more than anything else.
“To beat Djokovic is always very important but at the end, the most important thing is to win the tournaments,” insists Toni. “I remember in 2011 Roger Federer beat Djokovic in the semi-finals. But in the end Rafael won Roland Garros.
“For us it’s good because it’s not the same to beat the No1 or one of the best players as it is to beat the No100. And for us to beat Djokovic is always important, but the most important thing is to win the tournament.”
Besides his mental strength, Rafa’s legendary forehand that had tortured the likes of Federer for years often looked like it had lost its punch in recent seasons. Does Toni feel his nephew’s forehand is back to where it used to be?
“Completely? I never know. But I think his forehand is so much better,” he says. “The problem that we had before is that he used to play his forehand when he was young, when he started with his forehand, normally the point is finished, he starts with his forehand, one, two, three, four and the game was finished. And that was our strategy.
“But last year, or two years ago, he started with his forehand and then he loses the initiative, that was our problem. I thought we have to change this, the first thing. If not, then it’s difficult to be in the top, top.”
The changes in strategy have worked and Rafa is back to where he wants to be – a real contender for all the big titles.
Since Carlos Moya joined Team Nadal at the start of this season, Rafa has had three coaches in his camp – Toni, Moya and Francis Roig. Toni says his decision to stop coaching his nephew next season came when he saw how well Moya and Rafa were working together.
But is he not worried about how Rafa will compete without his help next year?
“How can he play without me? Exactly the same. I am sure,” insists Toni.
“The only thing I think he can be so much better because when he does something wrong, no one will say anything, that’s so much better for him,” he added with a laugh.
“I know for example, one day in Monte Carlo this year, we practiced and the guy who practiced with Rafael was playing really bad. We had to practice with him for two hours, and Carlos Moya told Rafael ‘it’s better to finish with this guy because he’s making a bad practice day for you’. And Rafael said ‘yes, it’s better’. So I said ‘the fault is not only for our partner, it’s for you too, because you made a bad practice day’. And that’s not what happened.
“In the next days when I’m not here, maybe the problem is always the sparring not Rafael. What is better? I don’t know. Maybe it’s better to say nothing,” he concluded with a chuckle.
Toni has a reputation of being strict with Rafa, and he was outlined in his nephew’s autobiography as someone who has been hard on him through most of his career.
In Toni’s eyes, it is more tough love than anything else.
“I am never so strict. I’m not strict. I am hard with my words only, because I think that’s the good thing for him, nothing else,” he explains. “I’m never hard with someone who can’t handle these hard things.
“Never have I been hard with someone I don’t love. I am hard with my kids because I love them so much. That’s the problem today, you want to be a friend of your kids and to say always good things, I don’t like to do that.”
Toni has no doubt left a lasting influence on Rafa, but he makes sure to remind us that it is his nephew that has special qualities that have allowed him to become a champion.
“What is talent? Talent is the capacity of work. Talent is intelligence, talent is the capacity to win matches when you play bad, and to think about your game and changing something. I think Rafael has more talent than Moya or Ferrero for this reason he has won more,” says Toni.
“But I think Rafael is more demanding of himself. He wanted it more because working with me was not easy, it was never enough. But I think in the end it was good for him.”
So if Rafa will survive just fine without Toni, will Toni be able to stay away from the tour? Won’t he at least miss the adrenaline, or will he join Rafa at some tournaments next year?
“No I won’t miss it,” he laughs.
“I don’t know, maybe if he paid the ticket, maybe I go, if not, I’m not rich enough,” he joked. “It depends, if he asks me ‘could you come here?’ Okay, I can come. But I don’t think he will need me.”
The irony is not lost on anyone.
Maria Sharapova was denied a French Open wildcard to preserve the “integrity of the sport” yet two of the players who did receive invitations into the tournament were involved in controversial incidents this week – albeit one of them much more serious than the other.
Frenchman Maxime Hamou, who had received a wildcard into the qualifying tournament, and won three matches to make it into the main draw, sexually harassed Eurosport journalist Maly Thomas on air while she was trying to interview him following his loss to Pablo Cuevas on Monday.
Hamou forcibly kissed her on the cheek and neck more than once and put his arm around her neck, despite her resistance, as she kept attempting to escape his grasp. Thomas’ colleagues on Eurosport reacted by laughing while witnessing Hamou’s horrifying behaviour.
The French Tennis Federation (FFT) acted fairly quickly on Tuesday when the video went viral on social media and they revoked Hamou’s credential.
“Roland-Garros tournament organisers took the decision to revoke Maxime Hamou’s accreditation following his inappropriate behaviour towards a female journalist yesterday, Monday 29 May,” read the statement. “The FFT President has asked the disputes committee to investigate for improper conduct.”
Hamou issued a statement apologising and Eurosport issued a statement apologising to viewers who may have been offended and to ensure everyone they do not condone the 21-year-old’s behaviour – despite the laughter from Thomas’ colleagues during the broadcast.
Thomas told Huffington Post that she would have punched Hamou had they not been live on air.
The sad thing is, had she actually punched him, the story would have been more about her getting violent than anything else. Like how dare she make a scene on television?
Why do men think they can act this way when a woman is simply trying to do her job? The FFT calling what happened “inappropriate behaviour” is an incredible understatement.
And the fact that the natural response of Thomas’ own colleagues is to laugh just shows the culture and blasé attitude towards such offences that is propagated in what continues to be a male-dominant profession.
It honestly makes me sick to my stomach.
The "handshake" is the perfect summary of Klizan vs Lokoli pic.twitter.com/a4F1KIHeSv— Stefano Berlincioni (@Carretero77) May 30, 2017
Elsewhere, another French wildcard, Laurent Lokoli, made headlines for refusing to shake hands with Martin Klizan after his 7-6(4), 6-3, 4-6, 0-6, 6-4 loss to the Slovak. Lokoli then accused Klizan of faking an injury.
The two players exchanged words during the fifth set with Klizan pointing out that the crowd was being unfair towards him, while Lokoli was upset his opponent celebrated after a double fault from the Frenchman. After Klizan won, he walked to Lokoli’s bench to shake his hands but the Frenchman waved him away.
Lokoli stood by his decision to snub Klizan when he was quizzed about it in his press conference and insisted that he was standing by his own values, as he hit out at his opponent’s alleged gamesmanship.
Yes, it sure has been a dramatic day in Paris.
Here are the highlights of day three at Roland Garros…
Passanti, tweener e volée tra Dustin Brown e Gael Monfils.— lamormii (@olaurone) May 30, 2017
Bella bella. pic.twitter.com/HVtgvScUnG
8 – games Marketa Vondrousova has dropped in four matches here so far (qualifying and main draw). The results of her matches have been: Q1 – 6-1, 6-0; Q2 – 6-0, 6-1; Q3 – 6-1, 6-4; R1 – 6-1, 6-0. Vondrousova for the Roland Garros title anyone?
400 – Tour-level match wins for Gael Monfils after his straight-sets victory over Dustin Brown on Tuesday.
“I played absolute shit made the difference. It’s quite simple.”
— Alexander Zverev’s analysis of his loss to Fernando Verdasco is succinct yet insightful
” I can’t really see the changing of the guard happening any time soon because of one tournament. Unbelievable week, but I think the young ones have a ways to go.”
— Nick Kyrgios on whether there’s a changing of the guard taking place after Zverev’s title win in Rome
“Are you suggesting I didn’t deserve my wildcard? No. Good. Well, I don’t really have anything to say about that.”
— Amandine Hesse when asked about her opinion regarding wildcard controversies
Chloe Paquet (FRA) bt Kristyna Pliskova (CZE) 6-7(4), 6-2, 6-2
The 22-year-old French wildcard Paquet, ranked 260 in the world, took out world No44 Kristyna Pliskova, who had made the Prague final on clay earlier this month. This was Paquet’s first ever Grand Slam match win in four appearances – all in Paris.
Less than years ago, a 17-year-old Borna Coric beat Rafael Nadal in straight sets in Basel en route to the semi-finals. The Croat was ranked No124 at the time.
Eight months later, Coric cracked the top 40 for the first time after reaching the third round of Roland Garros on his main draw debut. Early last year, he shocked Andy Murray in Dubai, wowing the crowd with a dominant display of tennis.
Of all the players from the so-called ‘NextGen’ group, Coric possibly showed the most promise early on, and even though Nick Kyrgios created the biggest buzz with his Grand Slam results, it was the Croat who seemed the more level-headed. His discipline got people to draw comparisons between Coric and one Novak Djokovic, who himself said that he saw himself in the young talent.
But then the results stopped coming, injury struck, and Coric ended his 2016 on the operating table, having knee surgery. He slipped to 79 in the world last April and watched his ‘NextGen’ peers like Alexander Zverev or Karen Khachanov pass him by, and move up the rankings.
“I think it’s impossible, in life, in tennis, in any job, to go only up,” Coric, who plays his Roland Garros second round on Tuesday against Steve Johnson, told Sport360.
“Definitely I didn’t do as well as I wanted to but I think it’s also because I got used to playing well, at a very high level very young and then to maintain that is very tough.
“If I hadn’t played so good then what I’m doing now would be amazing. And like this is just okay. But it’s normal. I’m just used to it, I think I’m playing better every day. I’m just really working on the stuff I need to work on and I think it’s going to come.”
Just when Coric was hitting a low rankings-wise, the 20-year-old Dubai resident caught fire. He claimed his first ATP title in Marrakech in April – the same week he slipped to 79 in the charts.
“Of course, I think, every player wants it to happen sooner or later,” he said of winning his first trophy.
“I had played two finals and I didn’t play good in those finals. I really wanted it to happen so I can get it off my back but at the same time I knew it was going to happen sooner or later if I’m going to play good.
“To be honest it happened a little bit sooner than I expected because I hadn’t played very well at the beginning of the season, but that’s tennis.”
Coric had another inspired week in Madrid, where he started by losing in the qualifying rounds but ended up reaching the quarter-finals as a lucky loser, with a huge win over the top-ranked Murray – the second of his career over the Scot – en route.
“I know that when I play my best tennis that I can play with those guys, I don’t know if I can beat them obviously but I know that I can play with them,” Coric said in Paris this week. “But I need to play at my highest level. Obviously the win (over Murray) helped me from a ranking perspective, also for my confidence. It gave me a lot of stuff and obviously I can go a little bit more relaxed now going into the tournaments.”
One change Coric made at the end of last season was hire a new coach – his fellow Croat Ivica Ancic, who is the brother and ex-coach of former world No7 Mario Ancic.
The partnership is already paying dividends as Coric finds himself back in the top 40 and playing the kind of tennis that earned him a lot of hype a couple of years ago.
“I actually knew him since I was 11 years old when I was doing some commercial with his brother,” Coric said of Ivica Ancic. “And then I hadn’t seen him for a while but I always had him in my mind as my coach and then we had the opportunity both of us, we were free, so we took it.
“We have a very similar mentality and character. We understand each other very well. He understands me, my needs in every aspect of life and I think it’s good also that we’re from the same country. We are a very special country, we have a bit of a different mentality, we’re a bit crazy, and it’s good that he is the same because he understands me. It’s a bit easier that way.”
Asked to elaborate on why he thinks Croats are “a bit crazy”, Coric added: “I think we have just different mentality. We can go up and down in the head, we are very emotional, we take things really personally.”
Coric does not come off as someone who is too emotional. He tends to convey the persona of someone who is in control, and often seems like he is more mature than his age.
“He’s still young but he thinks a lot about his tennis, and the way he communicates – he’s not a kid, he thinks a lot about himself, what he did in a match, what he should do,” says his coach Ancic.
“He has this self-control and also to be a good player, you have to teach yourself during the match, during the practice, so he’s very aware of what he’s doing, and that’s a very positive sign, especially for me as a coach, to work with this kind of player.”
Drawing comparisons with stars of the game often has a negative impact on young prospects coming up. Grigor Dimitrov suffered from the Roger Federer comparisons many years ago and the same could have happened with Coric. But he says it never weighed down on him.
“I never felt the pressure with that. People are going to say what they’re going to say. They’re going to compare me to someone, even if there is no reason to compare us. Because I hadn’t won a single tournament back then and they’re comparing me to him (Djokovic), and he won I don’t know how many, so it wasn’t in my opinion a good comparison. Even though we’re playing similar tennis, but still it’s a long way up to there,” explains Coric.
Perhaps the Djokovic references were not warranted, but was it tough witnessing the success of his peers like Zverev and seeing them achieve feats he has yet to achieve?
“There are a couple of guys doing really well, like Zverev, Khachanov… I have nothing against it, I have my career, I have my path and if they’re doing better than me that means they’re training more, they’re doing something better than me and I’m fine with that. I’m not happy of course – I want to be the best, I think that’s normal, but at the same time if I’m not the best, that’s life,” he concedes.
Burnout is a common problem among young players, and we’ve seen how overplaying affected Dominic Thiem next year. Coric is determined to get more selective with his schedule moving forward.
He says: “Definitely I’ve played a little bit too many tournaments this year. We just talked about it in Madrid, me and my team, we thought that in the second part of the year we’re going to play a bit less, we’re going to prepare better for tournaments, that’s the plan for sure.
“I was thinking how I was always chasing the points, because my ranking was not good, so it’s tough to go for the practice week when you’re ranking is 80 and you want to be around 40, then it’s not easy to say I’m going to cancel maybe Rome or I don’t know – it’s not easy because you need the points.
“But now I’ve played three or four good tournaments which gave me a lot of points and now I’m not under pressure for my ranking because I don’t have to defend anything after this.”