Over the last few days, in the wake of Nadal getting swept during the European clay court season, I’ve been discussing Nadal’s future in length. There’s one point I keep coming back to. Rafael Nadal has to change his coach. I’ve explained time and time again already that Toni Nadal has outlasted his usefulness and is in fact detrimental to Rafa’s career at this point. If you want more details on why Rafa needs to part ways with Toni, check out my last two articles about Rafa’s future.
To be clear, there is no indication that Rafael Nadal is even considering changing coaches. In fact, he’s adamantly denied the possibility of it happening. This is a rumour that I am creating, or at least spreading and it’s a rumour without basis. This is nothing but speculation, although my recommendations are serious.
Now, in a lightly more realistic way, who could Rafa replace Toni with? He needs someone with experience. Someone who understands the game. Someone who has worked with veterans before. Someone who understands Rafa’s current mental struggles. And perhaps most importantly, someone who can foster the proper environment to facilitate Rafa’s comeback. These suggestion are mostly serious, so you won’t find me recommending Boris Becker here. Here are some suggestions as to who should replace Toni Nadal as Rafael Nadal’s coach.
Brad Gilbert is probably the greatest coach in tennis history, bar maybe Toni Nadal. The difference between Toni and Brad, which gives Gilbert the edge, is that Brad Gilbert has taken multiple players, often already established pros, and turned them into stars. Gilbert spent time with Andy Roddick and Andy Murray, both of whom did well under his tutelage. Roddick won the 2003 US Open and reached the number one ranking in 2003 under Gilbert, finishing the year in the top spot. He also reached the 2004 Wimbledon final under Gilbert. Andy Murray reached his then-career high ranking of number eight with Gilbert as his coach. It was Gilbert who kick started Kei Nishikori’s career and set him on the course that has led him to the top five and grand slam contender status. And most importantly, it was Brad Gilbert who, according to his charge himself, almost single-handedly turned Andre Agassi from a spoiled brat into the legend that we remember him as. Under Gilbert, Agassi won six grand slam singles titles and Agassi has time and time again claimed that Gilbert was the reason for his success. Gilbert took over coaching Agassi in 1994. At the time, Agassi had been at the top of the game for several years, had reached four slam finals and had won Wimbledon in 1992. But Agassi was still missing something that was preventing him from being truly great. Gilbert brought that something to Agassi’s game and Andre is now remembered as one of the greatest of all time. According to Agassi, Gilbert was one part coach, one part psychologist. Agassi said that what Gilbert really taught him that allowed him to win was how to keep his head in the game. This is perfect for Rafael Nadal. What’s killing Rafa currently is his mental state. He’s lost his confidence. He needs a coach who understands that and knows how to encourage his players. That’s exactly what Brad Gilbert brings to the table. What’s more is that Gilbert, according to Agassi, singlehandedly broke the worst slump possibly ever seen in tennis history. In 1997, Agassi went completely off the rails and was ready to retire. It was Gilbert who pushed him, got him fit again, and got him back to the top. Two years after that meltdown, Agassi reached four straight slam finals, winning three, and finished the year at number one. He remained near the top of the game until his retirement in 2006 (though Gilbert parted ways with Agassi in 2002). Brad Gilbert is the slump buster and Rafael Nadal is in a slump. Less than a coach, Rafa needs a psychologist at the moment and Gilbert is just that. Not to mention, Gilbert is also one of the best strategists in tennis history. If you haven’t read his book Winning Ugly, read it. It’s brilliant. I’ve said that Nadal needs to retool his game to extend his career and Gilbert can help do that better than anyone. Certainly better than Toni Nadal. Gilbert is not currently coaching anyone and works as a commentator for ESPN. Brad Gilbert is exactly what Rafael Nadal needs at the moment. He would be a perfect fit.
Another Agassi connection, Cahill took over from Gilbert in 2001 and coached Agassi until Andre’s retirement in 2006. Cahill is also a proven coach, having kick-started Lleyton Hewitt’s career and led him to a US Open title and number one ranking. He’s proven that he can build a champion. He also proved with Agassi that he can coach a veteran. Agassi had relied on Gilbert and Gilbert had played such an important role in Agassi’s career, it seemed impossible that anyone could fill that hole. Kind of like how it seems impossible that anyone could fill the hole that would be left by Toni Nadal. Cahill did a fantastic job with Agassi. They won the 2003 Australian Open together and reached a further two US Open finals. When Cahill joined Agassi, Andre was already 30 and almost all of his contemporaries either had retired or were on the brink (Courier, Sampras, Becker to name a few). Not only would Agassi outlast them all, he would put them all to shame. Under Cahill, Agassi would regain the number one ranking, becoming the oldest player in men’s tennis to hold to the top spot. What Cahill brings to Rafael Nadal is his ability to work with veterans. He’s proven already that he can take an established champion and help them continue their careers. If Agassi’s body hadn’t given out in 2006, who knows how long he would have played? Cahill understands veterans and their minds. He can help Rafa. Andre Agassi also claimed that Cahill was a very calming presence. After twenty-four years of tension with Toni Nadal, Rafa could use something completely different. That’s what Cahill brings. Also, Cahill showed with Agassi that’s he’s willing to tinker with his players game to help them improve. In 2002, Agassi was unhappy with his racquet, so Cahill took it upon himself to find Andre a new one with new strings. Andre had been doing great with the old racquet, so it only made sense to find something similar. Instead, Cahill drastically changed Agassi’s weapon. The result was immediate success on clay, winning the 2002 Italian Open, and continued success on hard courts for four more years. I’ve said that Rafa needs to make adjustments to his game, but Toni Nadal is unwilling to do so. Cahill wouldn’t be. He would steer Nadal in the right direction. Cahill currently works as a commentator for ESPN during the grand slam events. Darren Cahill has been in almost this exact same position before he has experience taking over from a long time coach of a great player and extending their career. There’s no reason why couldn’t do, or at least try, again.
Of all the potential coaches I’m listing here, this one is by far and away the least likely. It would be a dream come true for me, as Nadal is my favourite player and Agassi is my favourite former-player. But Agassi’s hate for pro-tennis, at least while he was playing, is well known. He continues to play exhibition matches to this day, but that’s definitely for fun. He never seems to take them seriously. He’s just out there to goof around. So it seems unlikely that Andre would be willing to return to the world of serious tennis. Not to mention he has a life, kids, and schools to run at home in Las Vegas, so rejoining the tour probably doesn’t appeal at all. But just for fun, let’s look at how Agassi would fit as Nadal’s coach. The main strike against Agassi is that he has no coaching experience. However, his career was so long and complex that he has experienced pretty much everything you could possibly experience in a tennis career. He had great expectations, great success, great disappoints, awful slumps, injuries and comebacks galore. Sound familiar? He had a more drastic career than Nadal, but their experiences on the tour are certainly relatable. If there’s anyone who understands what Rafa is going through right now, it’s Agassi. Time and time again in his career, Andre went through slumps and it looked like his career was over, only to bounce back and be successful. What Andre would understand better than his two coaches, who not coincidentally I’ve listed above, is the media. Right now, Rafa is being given a trial by fire by the media. No one understands that better than Agassi, as he was the media’s favourite whipping boy throughout the 1990s. He would be able to provide so much insight and help Rafa survive this media brutality. Then there’s the fact that Andre has so much experience with slumps. He knows better than anyone how it feels to have zero confidence and he knows better than anyone what it takes to comeback from that. What’s more is that he has the advantage of having absorbed the teachings of both Gilbert and Cahill, which he could pass on to Nadal. On the mental side, Agassi could help Nadal so much. It’s worth noting that, while Agassi doesn’t have any official coaching experience, in 1999, he helped Andriy Medvedev get off his feet and back near the top of the game. Medvedev was struggling and his confidence was shot. He ran into Agassi at a bar and Andre gave him a long pep talk about how to get back on his feet. Medvedev took Agassi’s advice to heart and went on a tear, finding himself in the French Open final two months later, where he would lost to, ironically, Agassi. While Agassi’s “coaching” came within a set of coming back to bite him in that case, he proved that he understands mentality and is capable of helping a struggling player. Then there’s the fact that Andre Agassi played until he was thirty-six, reaching a grand slam final at 35 and being ranked number one in the world at 33. The world has known for years that Rafael Nadal’s body is going to give out sooner rather than later. That’s why I’m calling for him to change up his game. Agassi could help him do this. Agassi played a fairly physical style of tennis and did so well into his 30s. Not Nadal-physical, but still physical. Agassi also had tons of injury issues throughout his career. He knows how to deal with injuries and he knows how to physically extend his career. He’s absolutely the perfect person to help Nadal extend his career, despite his broken body. Andre Agassi is the perfect person to coach Rafael Nadal. He has all the experience and knowledge that Rafa needs to bounce back. Not to mention, Andre had enough bad experiences with overbearing coaches and family members that he knows how to properly treat a struggling player. It would be a dream come true if Agassi were to coach Nadal. Too bad it will never happen. But it would amazing if it did.
Probably not a lot of people know Paul Annacone, but he is certainly a great coach. Need proof? He coached two of the greatest players of all time. He coached Pete Sampras from 1995 until his retirement in 2002. He then took over coaching Roger Federer in 2010 and coached him until 2013. Between Sampras and Federer, Annacone has coached players to ten grand slam titles. More importantly, he took over coaching Sampras and Federer while they were near the top of the game, but struggling. He took over and got them back to their highest level. That’s what Nadal needs right now. He’s still a solid player, but he needs a new voice in his corner if he wants to be great again. Annacone has made a career out of doing that for great players. What’s more is that, if you judged based on the styles of play of his players, Annacone knows a lot about aggressive-minded tennis. If Rafael Nadal is to extend his career a few more years, he needs to start attacking more and shortening points. Annacone has proven track record with players who play that style of tennis. The most important thing though is that Annacone is proven as a coach of veterans. Both Sampras and Federer were both already grand slam champions and had been ranked number one in the world when Annacone took over. In fact, Federer was the almost the same age when he hired Annacone that Nadal is now. In the case of Sampras, Annacone also had the very difficult task of replacing Sampras’ long-time coach with whom he had a very personal relationship. It’s the same situation he would facing with Nadal. Annacone is used to taking over in difficult situations with established pros to whom he is an outsider. Any coach who replaces Toni Nadal will have an uphill battle simply building the rapport with Rafa. But Annacone has already done it twice with legendary players. He could certainly do it with a third. Annacone just finished a coaching stint with Sloane Stephens and is working for an online coaching website. He certainly could help Rafa turn his career around, just like he did with Federer before him. And how cool would it be if the same guy coached Federer and Nadal.
There is one specific reason why I think Moya could work as Nadal’s coach. Moya has no coaching experience and doesn’t really fit in with what I’ve outlined for Rafa’s comeback, specifically Rafa needing to succeed on faster courts. That being said, Moya would solve what appears to be Nadal’s current issue: confidence. How? If Rafa were to part with Toni, the main reason would be because of the environment that Toni has created in the locker room and on the practice courts (or at least that’s a big reason why Rafa should fire his uncle). Rafa’s confidence is in the gutters right now and he needs a kinder, more encouraging environment if he is to get his confidence back and return to the top of the men’s game. Who better to do that than his childhood hero and mentor? Nadal was a huge fan of Moya growing up and idolised his fellow Majorcan. While Rafa was a youngster on the tour, Moya took the future super star under his wing and helped him get his bearings on the tour. He was a steadying presence for the future King of Clay. Moya has a rapport with Rafa already, so there wouldn’t be that awkward introductory phase that any of the four men I’ve listed above. He would have a more immediate effect on Rafa. And he would probably have the best chance at fixing Rafa’s confidence quickly. While Moya might not help Nadal immediately succeed on fast courts, or even necessarily in the long term, he could help Rafa get his mojo back on clay which would probably help Rafa’s confidence more than winning on hard courts. If Rafa was confident on clay again, that confidence would wash over onto the fast courts more than the other way around. The big catch with Moya is that he has no prior coaching experience. He also currently has three small children so life back on the tour probably isn’t much of an option. Still, even if he couldn’t coach full time, having Moya back in his corner would certainly help Rafa.
If Rafael Nadal is to return to the top of men’s tennis, he needs to change things up. Specifically, he needs to change his coach. Toni Nadal is a big reason for why he is struggling and may continue to struggle. Very few great players spend their entire careers with the same coach. Any of the five men I’ve suggested would do a better job with Rafael Nadal moving forward than Toni Nadal is doing. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that Rafa will fire his uncle. Hopefully that decision doesn’t prematurely end his career.