When Rafa reunites with Toni: for the first time since his uncle, who accompanied him to the highest level, advises Felix Auger-Aliassime, Rafael Nadal faces the young Canadian in the knockout stages of Roland Garros on Sunday.
Since 2018, the coach is no longer at the side of his nephew, whom he has shaped since childhood on the courts of Manacor, the family stronghold of Nadal in the east of Mallorca.
For more than a year, he has been bringing his experience to Auger-Aliassime, world No. 9, who is also coached full-time by Frenchman Frederic Fontang.
But Rafa and Toni have 16 Grand Slam titles (out of his 21) and ten Roland Garros titles (out of his 13) in seventeen years spent side by side on the ATP circuit.
Will he then advise “FAA” before he challenges the king of ochre?
“Of course not! I told Felix that my ethics don’t allow me to give him advice on how to beat my nephew.
It’s like giving someone advice to beat my son! ” smiled the Mallorcan coach during an impromptu press briefing at the edge of Court No. 12, where the Quebecer trained at midday.
“When Felix came to the academy to ask me to collaborate, I told him: ‘If we play against Rafa, of course, I’m not going to do that when you’re going to score a point,'” he says, pointing to his clenched fist. And if Rafael had said no, I wouldn’t have taken him.
“More than an uncle”
On the Central on Sunday afternoon, he plans to follow this necessarily special match from a “neutral” place. Neither in the box of one nor in that of the other.
If the subject occupied almost half of the questions in the press conference, neither Nadal nor Auger-Aliassime make a big deal of this family reunion.
“For me, it’s very simple: he’s my uncle, I don’t think he wants me to lose, without a doubt, but he’s professional. Now he is helping another player. I have no problem with that,” Rafa said.
“There is no story: I know our feelings for each other. I know he wants the best for me, and I want the best for him. We are first and foremost from the same family.
Not just from the same family: we are a family that lives together all the time, we live in the same village, and we spend time together at the academy.
We experienced incredible emotions together. He’s more than an uncle, he says. I can’t thank him enough for everything he’s done for me for so many years.
Did Toni consult with him before agreeing to advise Canadian talent?
“He doesn’t have to ask me anything. He’s big enough to make his own decisions, right? ” smiled the nephew.
“We knew from the start that this was something that could happen, obviously a special case,” recalls “FAA” (21), who had never won a single match at Roland Garros before this 2022 edition but has not lost a set since he was led two sets to zero in the first round.
“When we’re together, we talk about Rafa, what he does well, what I can learn from him, things too that Toni thinks Rafa did less well,” he explains.
However, this time, Auger-Aliassime does not see the need for long speeches, even with the one who probably knows Nadal best.
“I don’t know if I need him to explain how Rafa plays; we all know what he does well… I don’t think Toni will teach me anything new about Rafa’s game,” smiled the Montrealer, who focused on his movement and footwork with the Mallorcan coach.
“Even with Fred (Fontang), it’s not like there’s a lot to say. I know him. In the end, it’s up to me to find solutions during the game.
No one, not Toni, not Fred, not I, has the recipe for winning. If there was a secret to beating Rafa, he wouldn’t have won thirteen times here…
Auger-Aliassime sees this face-to-face as “an opportunity to see where I stand towards him.”
For Toni, in any case, there is “a painful defeat.”