Felix vs. Rafa: Uncle Toni Will Sit This One Out
What is a coach to do? What is an uncle to do?
For Toni Nadal, Sunday’s fourth-round clash between his protege Felix Auger-Aliassime and his nephew Rafael Nadal is an intensely difficult moment to navigate. How he handles the situation is not 100 per cent clear. But with a straight-talker like ‘Uncle Toni’, you will at least get honesty regarding his allegiance.
“My nephew is my nephew", the Spaniard told ATPTour.com on Friday in Paris. "I told Felix that when he asked me to work with him. I want Rafael to win. If he were to lose, it would be a less painful loss because the player I work with would win, but I don't like to deceive anyone; I'm Rafael's uncle and he's more than just a distant nephew. If Felix played against my son... I wouldn't want him to win. This is the same."
On top of being the uncle of the player with the biggest haul of Grand Slam titles in history, Toni Nadal was Rafael Nadal's coach from four years of age until 2017, when he decided to step aside. A while later, the Mallorcan coach started a new phase of his career with Auger-Aliassime, joining his team as an advisor.
Sunday will not be an easy day for the 61-year-old. The Spaniard and Canadian will cross swords in the fourth round at Roland Garros for the first time since Toni accepted the challenge of helping Auger-Aliassime.
For that reason, on Sunday, Toni will not be in either player's box, and possibly not even in the Philippe Chatrier stadium... unless he can get his hands on a ticket like any other fan.
"I'm not going to go and watch the match," said Toni. "I'll watch it on television. I'm not going to sit in a box. If they give me a standard ticket, maybe I'll go and watch," he added. "I've told Felix's coach that tomorrow [Saturday] I'll be at the training session, but I won't on Sunday. I don't want to know what he tells him so that I'm not tempted to tell Rafael, whom, of course, I won't be telling any tactics either," he remarked.
"I am in no doubt that Toni wants the best for me," Nadal said later. "I also don't have the slightest doubt that, even though he's working with a different person, it's difficult for him not to want me to win. Because of everything we've experienced together and that we feel as family, above everything else, added to everything we've been through in our lives," he added. "He'd already told me before that he wouldn't be in the box on the day of the match. If he had been, it wouldn’t create the slightest problem for me because I am in no doubt about his feelings."
Nadal is in search of a historic 14th Roland Garros title, which would give him 22 Grand Slam trophies and allow him to pull away from 20-time Slam champion Novak.
"I'd like my nephew to win Roland Garros," admitted Toni. "Unfortunately, to do that, he has to beat Felix. I feel very comfortable with him, I'm lucky to be working with a player who is one of the best people on Tour, and also a good tennis player, but I'm Rafael's family," he continued. "In any case, I think he has a chance. He's really improved on clay, although he still has ups and downs. He's changed things, such as playing higher. If he continues to improve, I think he will be a candidate for the title here in the coming years," he warned. "On Sunday, the favourite is Rafael, and that should not affect Felix."
"I'm honest," noted Nadal, "I'll go out to play my match and do things in the best way possible every day, without thinking about anything else. That and thinking about how to play and how to beat an opponent who's one of the best in the world today is enough for me."
"I don't think Toni can tell me anything new about Nadal," explained Auger-Aliassime. "But we spoke about it from the start, the possibility of me facing Rafa at some point. There's really not much to say. I know him and I've seen him play many times. We'll see on court if I'm able to find solutions myself."
Sunday will be a very special day in Paris when Nadal and Auger-Aliassime clash for a place in the quarter-finals at Roland Garros and there will be no shortage of underlying emotions.