Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Rafa" The Book: Understanding Uncle Toni's Profound Influence

I've spent the last few days curling up with Rafa's recently published book "Rafa," by Rafa himself and writer John Carlin. It's been a surprisingly entertaining read about one of the most compelling personalities of the sport, and I must say, it has only made me appreciate all of Rafa's remarkable character traits even more.

There are a lot of topics discussed in the book, but for me the most interesting and eye-opening content concerns Rafa's unique relationship with Uncle Toni and Rafa's symbiotic relationship with the rest of his family.

I'll focus on Uncle Toni in this post, because I felt that the book was particularly revealing in that regard, and, anybody who hasn't read the book might not fully understand or appreciate just how significant the bond that Rafa and Uncle Toni share is.

First, I was struck by the similarities between Rafa's relationship with Uncle Toni and Andre Agassi's relationship with his father Mike. There are certainly differences, but the similarities struck me immediately. Like Mike Agassi, Uncle Toni believes in discipline; more specifically, in making practice almost unbearably difficult, so that tennis matches would seem comparatively easy.

"Yes, he might have gone too far, but it's worked very well for me," says Rafa of his Uncle in the book. "All that tension in every single coaching session, right from the very start, has allowed me today to face up to the difficult moments in a match with more self-control than might otherwise have been the case. Toni did a lot to build that fighting character people say they see in me on the court."

While Agassi developed a keen sense of contempt for his father, Nadal, due to the strength of his family life (which provided him with balance and joy, and kept him from getting too tightly wound) and perhaps his docile nature, never rebelled against Toni. "By pushing me always to the edge, he built up my mental strength," said Rafa. "But the intensity of his desire for me to triumph was complemented in a healthy way by my father's relaxed attitude to the whole thing."

The book certainly raises questions about the best way to build a tennis champion. Families such as the Williamses, the Agassi's and the Nadal's have used familial relationships to bend the rules of discipline and to push the coach-player dynamic beyond acceptable societal limits. In doing so the relative/coach gains entry into the deepest parts of their pupil's psyche, which allows them to push buttons that other coaches with less access might never get to push.

The player-coach dynamic wasn't always so simple for Nadal, and Toni's role in Rafa's tennis did not always go unquestioned. "Toni was hard on Rafa because he knew Rafa could take it and would eventually thrive. He would not have applied the same principles, he insists, with a weaker child," wrote John Carlin in the book. "This argument prevailed in the family at least to the point that no one, not even Rafa's mother, ever really confronted Toni and told him to ease up on the child. They understood that spending so many hours and hours with Toni was wearing in the extreme, but that the two of them had reached a point where they could not live, much less succeed in tennis, without each other."

It wasn't always pretty, but Toni, strong-minded ex-tennis player that he was, had his plan. More importantly, he had the families' support when it came to Rafa's tennis, even when things got awkward, as they did quite often.

When Rafa was 12, he returned home from an important victory in South Africa to a big party at his Grandparent's house. But before he could begin to celebrate, he was ushered away by Uncle Toni, who then said to the Grandmother: "What are you trying to do to Rafael? You'll ruin him. Don't give what he does so much importance."

Another example, from Rafa's 11th year, is also telling. After winning the Spanish under-12's, Toni took the initiative to phone the press to get the list of the previous twenty-five winners of the tournament. "Then, in front of the rest of the family, he read out the names and asked me if I had ever heard of any of them," writes Rafa. "'So and so, do you know him? No. This guy? No. And this one? No.' There were just five who had reached a decent level as professionals, whose names meant something to me. Toni was triumphant. 'You see? The chances of you making it as a pro are one in five. So, Rafael, don't get too excited about today's victory. There's still a long, hard road ahead. And it all depends on you.'"

Toni's influence over Rafa, and his ability to motivate him, has not wavered over the years. Even now, his words are what motivates Rafa to never be satisfied with himself, to always be humble, and to keep sharpening his mental focus in order to defeat opponents who are believed to be more naturally gifted than he is.

"Whether he's made me a better player, or I him," writes Nadal, of his rival Roger Federer, "it's hard for me to say. Toni has never ceased to remind me -- and I know he is right -- that Federer is more technically gifted than I am, but he does so not to cause me despondency, but because he knows saying so will motivate me to sharpen my game. I watch Federer playing on video sometimes, and I'll be amazed at how good he is; surprised that I have been able to beat him."

Tennis fans have always known that Rafa and Uncle Toni shared a special bond. After reading "Rafa," we now know some of the quirkier details of the union. John Carlin aptly calls them the "Dynamic Duo,", and the compelling book that he has co-authored with Nadal pays heed to their unique relationship, and the undeniably important role it has played in Rafa's success on the ATP Tour.


  1. Whew, that Uncle Toni is intense! But as long as Rafa can handle it, you can't argue against the results!

  2. Have only read a short part of the park (the one that's free on Amazon), but that was very interesting. Especially how Rafa considers Fed a lucky 'freak of nature' in terms of injuries and having the perfect build for tennis and how Rafa, no matter what happens must put all serves, all volleys and generally all shots to Roger's backhand.

  3. don't know where the word park came from - meant book

  4. Some book reviews of "Rafa" really ripped Uncle Toni for his harsh treatment. I found that a bit odd. While I was also surprised by the lengths he went to in order to discipline Rafa, it also felt like a detailed account of what it's really like to train under a stern master. I feel like earlier articles about Uncle Toni romanticized his "tough approach" without properly acknowledging the less pretty side it naturally entails. I guess it is a bit like Mike & Andre Agassi, only much healthier!

  5. I think when it comes to discipline, you gotta be cruel to be kind. Uncle Toni was cruel with a purpose, so was Mike Agassi, but yes, they are totally different in a lot of ways. Plus, as Rafa mentions, his dad provided the perfect balance. His mom and the rest of his family too.

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