Rafa gives Toni and Felix the thumbs up

 - Reem Abulleil

Spaniard pleased to see his uncle back on tour as part of Auger-Aliassime's coaching team

Rafael Nadal thumbs up, Roland Garros 2020© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

Toni Nadal did not need Rafa’s blessing before he decided to team up with Felix Auger-Aliassime, but the acclaimed coach and young Canadian have got it anyway.

Auger-Aliassime and Toni Nadal announced their surprise partnership last Thursday, revealing that their first tournament together will be this week’s Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters.

Rafael Nadal and his uncle Toni formed one of the most successful and iconic player-coach partnerships in tennis history, winning 16 Grand Slams together before the latter decided to step away from the grind of travelling the tour with his nephew at the end of the 2017 season.

Three years later, Toni is back on the circuit as part of ‘Team Felix’, sharing coaching responsibilities with Auger-Aliassime’s full-time mentor Frederic Fontang.  

The plan is for Toni to accompany the 20-year-old Auger-Aliassime at the majors, as well as a few other big events on the calendar, while maintaining his duties as the director of the Rafa Nadal Academy by Movistar.

Toni Nadal coaching Felix Auger-Aliassime during practice at Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters 2021© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

‘Grateful and happy’

Speaking to reporters in Monte-Carlo on Sunday, Rafa said he was thrilled to have a talented youngster like Auger-Aliassime associated with his academy and that the world No.22 will no doubt benefit from having Toni in his corner.

“Is something that I didn't tell to him, no. I don't have any problem, no. I always said the same: I want the best for Toni. First of all, he doesn't have to ask me anything,” explained Rafa.

“He's my uncle. I am very grateful for all the things that he did for me. I am happy that he's on the tour for a couple of weeks. At the same time I am happy for Felix. It is going to be a good support, have a great coach like Toni next to him.”

Rafael Nadal and Felix Auger-Aliassime doing press next to each other during Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters 2021© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

There will be advantages for Rafa too.

“I’m happy for me, too. I am happy to see my uncle here, spend time with him here on the tour again. That's a positive thing,” added the 13-time Roland-Garros champion.

The news of this new coaching relationship has, understandably, piqued the interest of many players on tour, who realise ‘Team Felix’ just got even stronger with the presence of a serial-winning coach like Toni.

Advantage, Felix

Stefanos Tsitsipas, seeded No.4 in Monte-Carlo this week, admits he was surprised by the announcement and is curious to see how it all pans out.

“That came really unexpected. Didn't see that coming. It's pretty cool having a coach that has helped Rafael Nadal win so many important titles and has shaped his career in a way,” said the Greek star, who is eyeing a strong clay-court campaign after reaching the semi-finals at Roland-Garros last fall.

“Well, it's really good for him. I feel like Felix has an advantage having a coach like this. But he's not going to do the playing for him.”

Stefanos Tsitsipas at practice during Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters 2021© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Great work ethic

World No.1 Novak Djokovic was not as surprised when he heard Auger-Aliassime and Toni were joining forces and sees them as a good fit.

The Serbian 18-time major champion is always up-to-date when it comes to all the happenings on tour – both on and off the court – and he already knew that Auger-Aliassime had been training at the Rafa Nadal Academy and was receiving advice from Toni.

“Toni probably was excited to explore a new project, a new adventure on the tour with one of the best young tennis players in the world at the moment,” said Djokovic on Sunday.

“Felix is a great guy. He's someone that has hard-working ethics, which is something that is very important for Toni.

“I wish them all the best. It's nice to see Toni on the tour. Obviously he's had his mark with Rafa for so many years. I feel like he can only bring positives to Felix's game and mindset.”

Novak Djokovic at practice during Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters 2021© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Indeed, it was Auger-Aliassime’s personality that first caught the eye of Toni, and encouraged him to work with the Canadian phenom, whom he believes has tremendous potential.

“I wouldn’t be able to work with someone who wasn’t respectful, who had no values, because I’ve been lucky enough to work for my entire life with a boy (Rafa) who has always been respectful and has earned himself a good name. I aspire to that,” Toni told atptour.com.

“I was delighted the moment they put the idea to me. Let’s not beat about the bush, Felix is a kid who theoretically should be among the best in the world in years to come. It’s always nice to work with someone like that.”

Back on the red dirt

The world’s top players are gathered in Monte-Carlo this week to kick off their clay-court campaigns in earnest.

Both Nadal and Djokovic will be making their first appearance since the Australian Open in February, and are feeling refreshed and ready to commence their preparations for Roland-Garros.

The 34-year-old Nadal, seeded No.3 this week behind Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev, is targeting a 12th title in Monte-Carlo, where he would become the tournament’s oldest champion in the Open Era, should he lift the trophy next Sunday. The Spaniard says he’s feeling “confident” and isn’t worried about the fact that this is only his second tournament of the 2021 season.

“It's true that I didn't play much. At the same time is true that I had good success in the past without playing much,” said Nadal.

Djokovic comes to the tournament undefeated so far this season, carrying a 9-0 record that includes a run to a record ninth Australian Open crown.

The Serb, who has triumphed twice in Monte-Carlo in 2013 and 2015, opted out of playing Miami but is not too concerned about his lack of match play heading into the clay swing.

“I have had some periods in my career where I didn't play a tournament for maybe couple months, then came back. So, I mean, I don't think there is anything special I have to do in terms of preparation in order for me to feel my best on the court,” assured Djokovic.

“I've been training quite a lot on clay. Actually ever since I pulled out from Miami, I was hitting on clay. Here in Monte-Carlo actually where I reside with the family, it was convenient and feels great.

“I feel physically prepared. Mentally I missed tennis last couple months that I haven't been competing. I look forward to my first match.”