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Felix Auger-Aliassime Says “Uncle”

By Giri Nathan

If I were designing a tennis news Mad Libs, I’d be elated if it produced sentences as weird as “Uncle Toni signs up to coach Felix Auger-Aliassime days before the Monte Carlo Masters.” You can’t beat reality, though, so here indeed is Rafael Nadal’s uncle standing next to the Canadian prodigy, a few days before the clay swing.

Toni’s been out of the public eye for a while now. After 16 major titles, some 26 years of tutelage, a whole mythology—was it really tactical prescience that made him turn right-handed Rafa into an on-court lefty?—and a secure spot among tennis’ winningest coaches, he called it quits in 2017. The strange part is that Rafa found out at the same time as the general public. According to a Rafa spokesperson, Uncle Toni hadn’t been fired; he wanted to quit exhausting year-round travel and focus on his job as director of the Rafa Nadal Tennis Academy in Mallorca. Make of that what you will; if I’d spent close to three decades coaching my nephew into possibly the greatest tennis player in history, I’d probably send him a box of chocolates or at least a text message. Whatever the truth, less than four years later, Toni has decided he’s ready for the grind of touring again. He’ll be bringing his advice to Auger-Aliassime, aged 20, ranked No. 22, and one of the best young talents alive, even if his 0–7 record in finals hints at struggles with pressure.

FAA at Indian Wells in 2019 (David Bartholow / @gorillavsbear)

Auger-Aliassime ended his slightly underwhelming 2020 season with four straight losses, with the exact same ranking he had to start the year. He then split with Guillaume Marx, his coach of six years, though he still works with coach Fréderic Fontang. What made him reach out to Uncle Toni in December? “I told myself that it would be good to go to somebody who has been at the highest level of our sport. Someone who has been to where I want to go one day,” he said. So Toni invited Felix down to Mallorca for 10 days, “to see whether what I had to say to him would be of use.” Apparently this trial period worked out for both sides. Toni sounds eager for the challenge: “I was delighted the moment they put the idea to me. Let’s not beat about the bush, this is a kid who theoretically should be among the best in the world in years to come.” As for the most pressing question of the hour—what happens when Rafa plays Felix?—Toni said that he would recuse himself from the player box out of respect to both players. Presumably he’d have already told his charge his One Weird Trick For Beating Rafael Nadal, so Felix will be delivering double bagels anyway.

By all accounts, including Rafa’s 2011 memoir, Uncle Toni could be a harsh teacher—the kind who could interrupt the family’s celebration of a 12-and-under title to rattle off the list of the past 25 winners, to hit home how few of them made it as a pro. In his second go-around as coach, he will have some familiar material to work with. Rafa and Felix have quite a bit in common: precocious results, top-end athleticism, stoic professionalism, a distinct lack of racquet-smashing. (Toni told young Rafa he’d quit if his nephew disrespected his equipment; those water bottles haven’t been disrespected a day in his career.) But one crucial difference is that Felix is a grown-up paying him a salary, not a child and blood relative whose loyalty could be won over decades of tough love and mild psychological warfare. This is a very different job! If he pulls it off, and Félix Auger-Aliassime makes that last push into the top tier, Toni makes a much more convincing case that he’s a genuine talent, and not just the well-situated uncle of one.

Above: Uncle Toni and his nephew at Roland Garros in 2015 (Getty Images)

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