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Steve Tignor: "Nadal + Tio Toni - the greatest coach-player duo of all time"

On Sunday, Rafa was widely praised for winning his 14th Grand Slam title. What went unmentioned was that his uncle had won his 14th Grand Slam title as a coach. We spend a lot of time wondering whether Rafa could one day be considered the greatest player of all time. But we might want to start asking another question: Is Toni Nadal already the greatest coach of all time?

It wasn’t so long ago that Mary Carillo, while commenting on U.S. television, could make the words “Uncle Toni” sound like something of a joke. But no one says his name like it’s a joke anymore.

From what I can tell, the only one of these coaches who approaches Toni Nadal’s 14 Slam titles is, yes, Tony Roche. He won them with Lendl, Rafter, and Federer during his prime years from 2005 to 2007. But Roche didn’t have anything like the type of impact on any of his players that Toni Nadal has had on his.

Tio Toni is the rare combination of a foundational coach and a professional coach—he’s Mike Agassi and Brad Gilbert, Jimmy Evert and Dennis Ralston in one (the closest comparison might be Carlos Rodriguez’s relationship with Justine Henin; both Carlos and Toni have also been caught doing a little too much advising from the sidelines at times). Toni introduced his nephew to the sport and taught him how to hit the ball, and he’s still in his player’s box for virtually every match. When Rafa won his ninth French Open on Sunday, he walked straight across the court to share a hug his with his family and his coach.

Most important, and most lasting, Toni instilled a philosophy of tennis in Rafa—lessons about the sport doubled as lessons about life, and vice-versa. He treated him roughly, asked more of him than he did his other students, yet never let him act like a star. He taught him to be stoical, to accept that bad things happen, on court and off, and that enduring them and overcoming them is the truest triumph. He dreamed the dream of a tennis champion for him, and didn’t allow him to be satisfied with anything less.

In short, Toni was, and apparently still is, a pain in the ass—Rafa’s 2012 autobiography could have been subtitled, “My adventures with my crazy uncle.” But he was the right pain in the ass, and his position as uncle was, in retrospect, a perfect one. He was emotionally, rather than financially, invested in his nephew’s career; Toni isn’t paid by Rafa. Yet he never had to worry about the complications that come with being a tennis father. He was free to be tough with his student, while at the same time forming a natural two-man team with him. That also left room for the young player to be influenced by his real father, Sebastian; as Rafa has said, they share a positive, winner’s personality that the darker Toni doesn’t.

Toni often refers to Rafa as “we”—we did this, we won that. He’s not taking credit; he’s acknowledging that the will and work of two people has been behind the Nadal success.

The nephew doesn't disagree. I can remember, during a slump of his many years ago, Rafa being asked if he would consider changing coaches. His answer was to raise an eyebrow, crinkle his face, and say, “Huh?” More than any other player I can remember, it's impossible to imagine Rafa without his mentor. A relationship that sounded like a joke at first has turned into the greatest coach-player duo of all time. We should all have an uncle that can do that for us.

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