By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday March 25, 2020
Lessons we learned participating in the Toni Nadal Camp at the Rafa Nadal Tennis Centre in Costa Mujeres, Mexico.
Photo Source: Rafael Nadal Tennis Academy
Day or night, the shadow cast a critical light over the young Rafael Nadal.
On the practice court, Toni Nadal shadowed his nephew so tightly he felt the cool breeze of his sweeping swing.
Toni Nadal: Simple Reason For Big 3 Dominance
On a perfect day in tennis paradise that is the Rafa Nadal Tennis Centre in Costa Mujeres, Mexico, Uncle Toni is re-enacting his coaching court positioning.
Only this time, Toni Nadal stands behind Maria Sharapova—or more accurately Talk Tennis’ Kerry Feirman who he’s nicknamed “Maria Sharapova” after watching her belt a drive volley that crashed off the ball hopper with wrecking-ball velocity—to illustrate his relationship to Rafa.
“I was very demanding. Rafael said sometimes it was more tough to practice with me than to play a final—and it’s true,” Toni Nadal says. “All the years that I coach Rafael, Rafael was here with the racquet and I was always here [a few feet behind].
“Always very close because I wanted him to know that I push all the time. I was always very close. And I was very, very demanding.”
Coaching master Uncle Toni imparted his insight, inspiration and imagination to recreational players earlier this month at the Toni Nadal Camp at the Rafa Nadal Tennis Centre, which is about a 30-minute drive north of the Cancun International Airport.
Joining Toni Nadal on the camp staff: two-time Roland Garros doubles champion Anabel Medina Garrigues, who shows the same passion guiding us hackers as she did coaching Jelena Ostapenko to the 2017 French Open crown; and two of our favorite staff coaches Alex Praderas and Ruben Mora, who each previously coached at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca.
The coaches are all bilingual, engaging, they learn and repeat each player’s name within 10 minutes of meeting you and provide every player in our group specific instruction.
The camp at the tennis paradise that is the TRS Coral Hotel was part of the 50th anniversary of Palladium Hotel Group. Tennis Now was among a group of seven media members, including tennis coach Ramon Osa and Hola TV host and former player Christian Carabias, who has a lefty forehand reminiscent of Fernando Verdasco, to attend the co-ed camp of a few dozen players.
This is high-performance tennis training in a tropical paradise on the grounds of two five-star resorts—the TRS Coral Hotel, which is for adults only, and Grand Palladium Resort & Spa, catering to families. We visited before the coronavirus crisis began ravaging North America.
The resort is a sports lover’s playground with spectacular sunrises over an inviting beach, fine dining, Mexico’s famed tequila and mescal offerings—and all the tennis you can handle. If you’re looking to decompress from the vise-grip of daily stress and immerse yourself in tennis and relaxation, plug into bliss here.
It empowers you to take a deep dive into the Nadal tennis training methodology on eight pristine red clay courts, including four covered courts, a full soccer field, paddle courts, a gym for warm-ups, stretches and basic training.
The Costa Mujeres Centre complements the Rafa Nadal Academy, which opened its doors in May 2016 in Rafa’s native Mallorca. Rafa and Uncle Toni traveled to Cancun to officially inaugurate the Centre in February of 2019 and stock the Rafa Nadal Museum experience on the second floor. It features an exhibit of the king of clay’s Grand Slam and Davis Cup trophies, the racquets he used winning some of those titles and the clothes and shoes Rafa wore in those title runs as well as items from players ranging from Madison Keys to Maria Sharapova.
Denting Rafael Nadal’s dominance on clay is as daunting as supplanting Leonardo in the Louvre.
Behind every great champion is an astute coach. Toni Nadal is both opinionated and outspoken and loves talking tennis, which makes him a very popular presence among this group of tennis junkies.
We quickly learn Uncle Toni is a coaching contrarian in today’s tennis.
Wearing the collar of his polo shirt turned up, Benoit Paire style, Toni Nadal watches each player in the camp from behind a pair of sunglasses and baseball cap. He’s not quite as tall as his nephew, but Toni Nadal is solid and strong with thick legs that recall the young Franco Squillari. Toni coaches by showing and telling—sometimes with sarcasm but always with energy and genuine interest in the outcome.
While informing me I’m inadvertently jamming myself by cramming my elbow too tightly to my rib cage on my forehand take-back, Toni Nadal mimics my constricted stroke as if swinging while trapped within a strait-jacket then shows how much more fast and fluid his forehand swing is when the arm has space to travel away from the body.
Toni Nadal provides practical advice and then asks you, the player, to see and feel the difference and try to revise your stroke accordingly. He’s not one to lecture about “process”, enlist a nutritionist or seek out a sport psychologist when inevitable struggles arise. In fact, he suggests all these trends are just ancillary alibis, unnecessary baggage that coaches adopt to add an air of complexity to their jobs.
“Today, when we lose some matches we go to the psychologist and the psychologist says: Oh, you have to imagine this and this and only these things,” Toni Nadal says with aversion. “Unbelievable.”
“Because all sports are very simple. Now we want to complicate everything because if not then how can I say I am a good coach if I don’t make things as complicated?”
Simplicity is the core component to Toni’s teaching.
“Life is very logical. Tennis is very logical,” Toni Nadal says. “I was always very simple in all my coaching all my life. Many times I talked to Rafael and I said ‘You are not good enough, you have to decide why. Either your abilities are not good or we practice bad, but we have to change.’ Everything was simple. We try to hit the ball every time good.”
Tennis is a solitary sport but even a brief time spent under Uncle Toni’s tutelage reminds us to recognize the relationships.
It’s the relationship between your body and the ball, the connection between your intent and contact point, the ongoing rapport between the eyes, the mind, the feet and the hands and of course the communication between coach and player he emphasizes throughout the camp.
It’s also about recognizing the weaknesses in your game and working daily to strengthen them. Relentless revision is vital to Rafael Nadal’s ongoing evolution and a principle of this camp.
“Today I have to adapt my game to the new time and to my age,” the second-ranked Spaniard says. “That’s what I did during all my career, just try to adapt my game. That’s the only reason why at this moment I’m still here competing at a high level.
“I know during my career, I’m going to lose things on my way, so I need to add new things.”
Indeed, when a teenage Nadal burst onto the tour with a thick thatch of shoulder-length hair and sleeveless T-shirts that made him resemble a tennis Tarzan, he hadn’t fully mastered his one-handed slice backhand, he was more comfortable hitting drive volleys than traditional volleys, predictably spun his serve wide on the ad court side and often only ventured to the net for the post-match handshake.
Though Nadal is often typecast as a defensive grinder, he’s at his best commanding the center of the court with his menacing forehand, snarling spin and skill closing at the net: Nadal is a fine volleyer who has won 11 career doubles titles and captured Olympic gold medals in both singles and doubles.
Following a thorough warm-up that works hips, shoulders, arms and legs, coaches break up the larger group into smaller groups of three or four players training on each of the eight red-clay courts.
Day one is all about drilling and training—often simultaneously.
For instance, the initial four-ball drill has two players standing next to each other behind the center stripe on the baseline. Both move laterally to hit a drive, shuffle back to the center then repeat before sprinting around the net to retrieve the balls and deposit back in the coach’s basket and return to the line to repeat the drill again and again.
Midway through the second drill, your legs are like licorice and your lungs go rogue. The physicality of the drills are designed to strengthen your stamina for match play.
The Nadal methodology places a premium on executing each aspect of stroke fully and quickly recovering to the center of the court. Toni Nadal reveals the simple four-point plan he continuously stressed to the young Rafa.
“The first thing that I said to Rafael try to hit the ball as hard as possible,” Toni Nadal says. “Then the second: try to put the ball where your opponent is not—normally it’s better. Then the third thing was to put the ball in because when the ball is out then normally the point is to your opponent.
“With these three things, Rafael arrived to number one in the world. There is another thing that is the most important. I said to Rafael every time: try to hit the ball as good as possible. This is demanding.
“For me, demanding wasn’t to win Roland Garros or win Wimbledon. My demand was to try to be better every day and this is what I try to make of Rafael all my life. I was always very demanding, but I was demanding for him—not for myself.”
There is a supply and demand dynamic between nephew and uncle: Toni demands more and Rafa responds with more effort.
In the camp, Toni Nadal encourages us hackers to demand more of ourselves. To hit each shot with a purpose, execute it fully and fluidly and finish every stroke. Toni Nadal, who grew up playing chess, ping-pong, soccer and swimming before turning to tennis at about 15, owns smooth strokes, including a one-handed backhand. When teaching, Toni will often jump right into the drill and demonstrate the stroke or skill he’s asking you to replicate.
Ultimately, it’s about commitment.
Commit to every shot you strike and commit to playing with purpose every time you step on court. Sounds simple, right? But when you really try to maintain laser focus through the contact point and finish of every stroke, notice how quickly your concentration can wander.
On day one, Toni Nadal tells us the most important talent in tennis and in life is the capacity to work, focus and improve. He cites two Spanish standouts—and former Davis Cup teammates—to illustrate that theory.
“When they were young, you could ask who has more talent: Feliciano Lopez or David Ferrer? Normally the people all said Feliciano Lopez,” Toni Nadal recalls.
“I said: it is not true. It’s David Ferrer who has more talent. Because the talent, for the young, is the potential, the capacity to improve, work and do good in the future.”
Patience is a prerequisite for success on red clay. Perspective is a big part of Nadal’s methodology. It’s knowing exactly where you are on the court and in your game and taking the right route to get to where you need to go.
Was there anything we’d change about our experience at the Toni Nadal camp?
Both Toni Nadal and Anabel Medina Garrigues were forced to leave camp a day earlier than expected because Spain declared a state of emergency on March 14th putting the country in lockdown in an effort to suppress the spread of COVID-19.
Don’t come to camp expecting to learn Rafa’s electric sliding skills on red clay. Coaches tell our group at our age—most of us are over age 35—the focus is getting your body behind the ball and striking on balance not sliding.
My issues were self-created. In retrospect, I should have worked out harder and longer and hit more balls before the trip. If I had a chance to do it again, I’d be fitter and sharper before attending to really get the most out of it.
If you play primarily on hard court, like me, you may be challenged transitioning to a true red clay court. The bounce is higher than hard court—and Har-Tru or American green clay—which not only tests your legs, lungs and lateral movement, but your ability to backpedal quickly and recover to the center of the court. If you’re mainly a doubles player, you will likely find yourself using muscles you didn’t know you have during this camp.
The good news is the Rafa Nadal Tennis Centre offers individual and group lessons specifically suited to whatever you want to work on. Toni Nadal uses Rafa’s growth as a teaching tool for recreational players by citing specific examples from his nephew’s career that were learning lessons for player and coach.
After a gallant Rafa Nadal fought off Fernando Verdasco in an epic five-hour, 14 minute battle in the 2009 Australian Open semifinals, he confronted a grim reality conceding he was physically spent, pained by a chronic foot injury and confided to Uncle Toni “I can’t run” hours before the AO final against Roger Federer.
“I told Rafael: if there was a sniper shooting, you could run all night,” Toni Nadal recalled, adding he quoted both Winston Churchill and Barack Obama’s “Yes we can” to inspire his nephew a couple hours before he faced Federer.
Answering the call, Nadal subdued Federer in five sets to become the first Spanish man to win the Australian Open.
“Honestly, I don’t feel more passion for sport than for developing a person’s character,” Toni Nadal tells us. “When you lose, there’s only one way to go and that’s train harder. I was lucky enough to train a guy who was excited every single day for practice as he was before a final.”
Passion is what connects Toni and Rafa and is the thread connecting everyone at the camp.
In retrospect, it probably wasn’t a bright idea to indulge in several shots of tequila the night before an 8 a.m. group lesson, but you feel a little less self-indulgent over lunch the next day when Toni shares the fact Rafa “eats whatever he wants” and doesn’t follow any strict diet. Then again, Rafa isn’t gulping down tequila like Gatorade the night before practice.
Another unexpected bonus: despite all the eating and drinking we did away from the court—you leave Cancun without feeling like a sunburned Michelin Man. Perhaps because of all the moving you do while on court.
The experience of playing on perfect red clay courts is invigorating and helps you see the sport through a different lens.
The Costa Mujeres red clay courts are so forgiving you can play hours—and each of our training sessions was at least two hours—without risking the gnawing muscle and joint pain many of us over 40 players sometimes feel after a couple hours on hard courts. As someone who’s had a couple stress fractures and bouts of plantar fasciitis in both feet, I likely would have been hobbled had this camp been on hard courts. On these clay courts, you feel fatigue for sure, but no pain.
Overall, the camp was a complete blast in a clay-court paradise. It was also a physical wake-up call and a reminder of why tennis is still the ultimate sporting lie-detector test. You can’t fake fitness facing an opponent with superior stamina and you can’t feign bluster when your second serve is basically a bluff.
Listening to Toni Nadal’s candid coaching style reinforces the importance of self-examination and blunt honesty in tennis and life. As a coach, Toni Nadal isn’t one who tells you what you want to hear. However, he’s happy to tell you what you need to hear and that’s vital for growth.
In tennis and in life, truth won’t resolve all your issues, but an honest voice of encouragement—whether it’s the voice within or Uncle Toni’s gruffly lyrical voice—can often help us recognize and repair self-sabotage and strive to be a better version of ourselves.