One word which defines Rafael Nadal is certainty. Since the time the young 19-year-old announced himself to the world with his first French Open win in 2004, he has approached the game with unerring uniformity. 

Perhaps the strongest thread of continuity in his career has been the presence of his coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, in the stands. Toni introduced Rafael to tennis when he was just 3 and continued coaching him till January last year, helping him win 14 Grand Slams during the course of their association. 

Mentorship from the beginning

Toni was Rafael’s coach for 28 years. He was the one who famously told Rafael to abandon his two-handed forehand for a left-handed one, which would soon become the most lethal weapon in men’s tennis. It was Toni’s presence that convinced Rafael to abandon plans of shifting to Barcelona and to continue training in Mallorca, thereby forgoing funding from the Spanish Tennis Federation.

Many of the habits one associates with Rafael have been instilled by his first coach. The never-say-die attitude in chasing seemingly lost causes and the impeccable behaviour on court have been characteristic traits, credit for which should partly go to Toni.

“If you have a great guide who looks after you from a young age and you start training under those people, there is little chance that you wouldn’t end up successful. So look for that mentor," says Nikhil Sharma, CEO of zlait Sports Management.

Sharma invokes Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule—that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become world class in any field. “If a family member or a coach looks after you at a young age in any vocation, chances are you will have completed 10,000 hours of practice, giving you a great chance to become world class in your chosen field.

“It helps to have someone at the start to do the thinking for you," he adds.

Sticking to a routine

Over his 15-year career, Rafael’s fundamentals have not changed. He still dominates clay, the way he did more than a decade and a half ago. He still has the rip-roaring forehand that he kicks and spins at will. The need for order still reigns supreme.

Rafael has a famously fixed on-court routine. From arranging his energy drinks in a straight line to tugging his shorts before points, or bouncing the ball a fixed number of times before he serves, he is a creature of habit. Drawing a parallel, Sharma says: “Most achievers in any field have a set routine. About 80-90% of their life is very sorted, compartmentalized and disciplined." 

Sharma cites the contrasting approach of Australian tennis star Nick Kyrgios. “His mind is constantly at war. He is unable to compartmentalize and is suffering because of it."

Carlos Moya has taken the reins from uncle Toni in Rafael Nadal’s coaching team. Photo: Reuters
Carlos Moya has taken the reins from uncle Toni in Rafael Nadal’s coaching team. Photo: Reuters

Channelling negative emotions

Kyrgios is known to struggle with his emotions and has a hard time controlling his anger on court. Rafael, too, had issues with aggression in his early days, but the hard taskmaster in his uncle helped him turn the negative energy into a strength.

“The problem with anger is that it ends up harming you more than your competition. A mentor plays a big role in helping one realize how it is not helping their cause. It takes a personal relationship between the two to come to an understanding of the same," says Sharma.

“It can be the case for other emotions as well. If someone lacks confidence or is meek, a mentor can help them realize and overcome those feelings and fulfil their potential," he adds.

The 1998 French Open champion Carlos Moya took Toni’s place in Rafael’s coaching team. Toni, however, is still part of the auxiliary support system: He handles Rafael’s recuperation and injury rehab routines. The appointment of Moya, equipped with experiences on the tour both as a player and coach, showed immediate results, with Rafael reaching the final of the Australian Open in 2017.

Rafael enters the Wimbledon as 11-time French Open champion and will fight for a third title in his favourite tournament, where he looks in prime shape to challenge Roger Federer yet again.

Coaching a Star is a series that looks at ideas from the coaches of tennis champions that lead to their success and the lessons managers can draw from these.

To read other stories from this series click here

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