Rafael Nadal is struggling a bit in Cincinnati this week – he needed three sets, three tie breaks, and over three hours to get past countryman Fernando Verdasco on Thursday and into the quarterfinals (where he’ll play US Open Series stud, Mardy Fish.) He’s also dealing with burnt fingers from a too-hot plate restaurant plate – I guess those servers aren’t lying when they say “watch it, the plate is hot.”
But whatever annoyances he’s dealing with now are child’s play compared to what Rafa had to deal with when he was, well, a child. Rafa’s new autobiography Rafa, My Story (with writer John Carlin) is hitting book stores and is being serialized by the Telegraph newspaper. Thursday’s excerpt details just how tough the famously stern Uncle Toni really was on his young charge. Rafa recalls coming home in tears after practice sessions with his uncle, who was the coach at a local club in Manacor. Eager not to show favoritism during group lessons, Toni chucked balls at his daydreaming nephew, made him pick up more balls than the other kids and sweep the court – a habit he’s famously continued into his superstar period. Here’s the gist of their relationship in the early years:
My mother remembers that, as a small child, sometimes I’d come home from training crying. She’d try to get me to tell her what the matter was, but I preferred to keep quiet.
Once I confessed to her that Toni had a habit of calling me a “mummy’s boy”, which pained her, but I begged her not to say anything to Toni, because that would only have made matters worse.
Toni never let up. Once I started playing competitive games, aged seven, it got tougher. One very hot day I went to a match without my bottle of water. I’d left it at home.
He could have gone and bought me one, but he didn’t. So that I’d learn to take responsibility, he said. Why didn’t I rebel? Because I enjoyed tennis, and enjoyed it all the more once I started winning, and because I was an obedient and docile child. My mother says I was too easy to manipulate.
Even more shocking to me is learning that Uncle Toni is still bringing Rafa down, including during matches when he illegally coaches from the stands. More from Rafal:
During a match I’ll hear him say, “Play aggressive!” before a return of serve . I’ll go for it, the ball will go out, and then he’ll say, “Now wasn’t the moment”.
But it was the moment; it just happened that I messed up the shot. If the ball had gone in, he’d have said, “Perfect!” The atmosphere in our team is tenser when Toni’s around than when he’s not.
It’s a surprise to read such a blunt description of the Uncle/Nephew/Coach/Player relationship from Rafa’s own (ghostwriter’s) pen. Toni has always enjoyed the reputation of a fairly benevolent task master, but Rafa’s accounts of tears and heaps of “abuse” under his tutelage cast his uncle in a much harsher light. Of course, Rafa is sure to credit his uncle’s for his incredible success.
Everything I have achieved in the game of tennis, all the opportunities I have had, are thanks to him. I’m especially grateful to him for having placed so much emphasis from the very beginning on making sure I kept my feet on the ground and never became complacent.
While Toni’s refusal to let me off the hook has its value, in that he pushes me always to improve and do better, it can also be bad because he creates insecurity.
Rafa’s still working on the whole emotional manipulation thing:
The point is to hold on to the lessons I’ve absorbed from Toni but to impose my own judgment more, striving to find the right balance between humility and overconfidence. . .What I am trying to teach myself now is . . .to exercise more autonomy over my life and disagree more openly with him.
Okay great, juicy, honest stuff, but why did Rafa put this in a book for all to read? (Besides the cynical explanation that it will help sell more books.) Is Rafa hoping that Uncle Toni will take note and perhaps keep quiet during his quarterfinal vs. Fish on Friday? Instead of continuing to argue and simmer, Rafa can just spit out something like “Page 94, Toni!” It’s kind of a passive aggressive tactic, but well. . . just ask Fernando Verdasco about that.
I imagine Uncle Toni skimming the chapter with a chuckle, tossing it back to his anxiously hovering nephew and saying “Enough of this. Get back on the practice court, you momma’s boy.”
In related news, Caroline Wozniacki and her father are finally breaking up their coaching relationship after a long run of disappointing results from the World No. 1. Tennis.com reports that the family has hired someone new, though her father was helping her in Cincinnati until she lost in her opening round. It sounds like Piotr is still working out his issues:
“We’ve heard from morning to night how Caroline should play,” Piotr told the newspaper (Ekstra Bladet). “So now she tries something else. It is intended that she should be a very aggressive player. But as you can see, she cannot win matches right now, because she does not know how she should play. But whatever, I’m Caroline’s father, and I will always support her.”