To preface, this is nothing but pure speculation. There are no rumours to even suggest that there is the slightest possibility of anything of this nature happening. This idea comes purely from my own imagination and nothing else. However, it is a fun idea to consider, so let’s speculate.
What if Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic swapped coaches? Toni Nadal left his nephew to coach the world number one, while Boris Becker took the reins of Rafa’s career. Rafa and Novak are two players seemingly heading in different directions at the moment. Rafa is falling, watching his results tail off, and is in desperate need of a shot in the arm. Djokovic, on the other hand, is at the height of his powers. He’s a runaway freight train that actually might do well with some guidance.
First off, to even consider the possibility (or lack thereof) of this happening, you have to ask why would either player want to part with their coach? For Rafa, he’s never had another coach in his entire tennis playing life. Toni Nadal has coached his nephew since he was five years old. Toni built Rafa into a champion, but now Rafa’s results are getting worse fairly consistently. He’s just lost his clay kingdom and is in desperate need of someone to save him. Toni Nadal is a great strategist, but he’s a terrible shrink. He’s the wrong person to help right the ship that is Rafael Nadal. He’s also very stubborn, and is unlikely to change the direction he’s had planned for Rafa since Rafa was a kid. What’s more is that Toni Nadal understands clay court tennis and has built his player to win there. As I explained yesterday, that won’t work for Rafa for much longer. He needs to be more aggressive and keep matches short. This probably means focus on grass and hard courts more than clay. Rafa needs a new voice to guide him as he approaches his thirties if he wants to stay relevant.
Boris Becker has also done great things for Novak Djokovic. He’s turned Djokovic from a human version of Pong with a huge backhand into an all-court monster. He’s got Djokovic striking the ball more aggressively than ever and absolutely dominating opponents. That being said, Boris Becker has twice now failed to help Djokovic claim the prize he desires most: the French Open. When Djokovic hired Becker, I wrote a piece weighing the pros and cons of the hiring. I made several predictions about how Djokovic would perform under Becker. So far, I’ve been right on all counts. I said Djokovic would win another Wimbledon. Check. I said he would serve better and volley more. Check. I said he would be more aggressive in general. Check. I said it wouldn’t affect Djokovic’s US Open performance. Check (though Djokovic has only played one US Open under Becker). I said Djokovic would continue to have a questionable attitude, Check (disagree? May I direct you to this year’s Miami Masters final to start). And, most importantly, I said that Djokovic would not win the French Open under Becker. Double check. When I posted that article, I was attacked in the comments, being told that I had no idea what I was talking about, my logic was unsound, and I was completely wrong. 18 months later and I’ve been right about everything. Right now, the only thing standing between Djokovic and true greatness is the French Open and I stand by what I said last year: Becker will not help Djokovic win Roland Garros. Djokovic needs someone who truly understands clay and clay court strategy if he wants to win the French Open. He needs to get back to his counterpunching roots and work on methodically breaking down opponents’ weaknesses so that he doesn’t get bullied again like he did in this year’s French Open final.
While both players are presumably quite happy with their coaches, it’s hardly paradise for either. There are strong reasons as to why each player could consider looking for a new coach. And what if the impossible happened? What if they flipped coaches?
Boris Becker might actually be a very good fit for Rafael Nadal. Firstly, he’s a former world number one and multi-slam champion. He understands the mentality and the champion’s mindset. He can probably relate more to how Rafa is feeling at the moment. Becker can provide way more insight and support on the mental side than Toni Nadal can. Rafa needs someone who understands what he’s going through right now. Becker would fit that requirement fairly well. Becker who also bring the same thing be brought to Novak Djokovic which has helped him become the force that he is: aggression. If Rafa is to squeeze a few more years out of his body, he needs to play shorter matches. He needs to play shorter points. Ergo, he needs to end points quickly. He needs to go on offence more. Just look at what Becker has done for Novak Djokovic. Djokovic is serving better than ever. He’s attacking the net more often and doing so quite successfully. He taking the match to his opponents and forcing them to play defence. These are all direct results of Becker’s coaching. If Becker could bring these elements to Rafa’s game, it would make a huge difference. Rafa already has the powerful strokes to attack opponents. He also has the most underrated volley in tennis, which he desperately needs to use more. Yesterday, I laid out five things Nadal needs to do to stay at the top of men’s tennis. Becker helps to fill four of those five categories. Becker understands aggressive tennis, which Nadal needs to adopt. Nadal is aggressive, yes. But he’s more aggressive in the “crush my opponent under the weight of my relentless pressure” type. Becker on the other hand is more of the “blast the ball past my opponent” type of aggressor. Nadal’s type of aggression has wrecked his body. He needs to play Becker’s style of aggression if he wants to extend his career. Obviously, Nadal isn’t going to turn into Boris Becker if Becker started coaching Rafa. However, we’ve seen what Becker is capable of with Novak Djokovic. If Becker had the same effect on Nadal that he has on Djokovic, Nadal would probably win another US Open title and another Australian Open title. Wimbledon would not be out of the question. It could be tough for him to claim a tenth French Open, but nothing is out of the question. If Rafael Nadal is to remain relevant and extend his career, he needs to be more aggressive and keep rallies and matches shorter. Boris Becker has proven that he can teach a player to do that. He would be a pretty good fit for Nadal.
Toni Nadal might not fit with Novak Djokovic as well as Becker would fit with Rafa, but it could still prove to be a lethal combination. There is really only one reason why Djokovic would hire Toni as his coach: to win the French Open. If there is any coach on the planet who understands what it takes to win in Paris, it’s Toni Nadal. He built the most dominant Roland Garros King in history. He understands what it takes to be the champion in Paris. Djokovic is a very good player, but what he isn’t is a great problem solver. Especially on clay. Especially in Paris. Novak Djokovic is a very complete player. Both of his groundstrokes are solid to say the least. He can return serve better than almost anyone in tennis. His serve is solid. His volleys are solid. He has no glaring weaknesses. This is how he beats most opponents. However, his recent loss in the French Open final exposed perhaps his biggest weakness: he doesn’t know what to do when faced with an inspired opponent. We’ve seen it when Djokovic has gone up against Nadal countless times. We’ve seen it twice now in eighteen months against Wawrinka. We’ve seen it twice in major finals against Andy Murray. We even saw it last year at the US Open against Nishikori. Djokovic can defend well, but if plan A doesn’t work and he gets caught on the back foot, he has a hard time turning the match around. If Toni Nadal has one predominant strength as a coach, it’s his tactical genius. Rafael Nadal took down Roger Federer consistently during Federer’s peak years. Outside of Wimbledon (barely) and indoor hard courts, it took a perfect day from Federer to hold off Nadal. That’s because Nadal figured out what he needed to do to beat Federer. Federer from 2004 through 2007 was about as unbeatable as anyone in tennis history. Even this current Djokovic probably couldn’t beat Federer in that time period. The only player who could consistently do it was Nadal. Again, it’s because Nadal figured out the tactics to beat Federer. Of course, Nadal also had the advantage of his gigantic lefty forehand attacking Federer’s one-handed backhand, but that doesn’t change the fact that no one else could really attack Federer. Toni Nadal engrained tactical tennis into his nephew’s brain. Rafa in his prime was probably one of the best problem solver’s in tennis history and a big reason for that is his uncle. That’s where he would benefit Djokovic. When Djokovic was staring down the Wawrinka onslaught last Sunday, he was unable to turn the tide. He found himself stuck on defence. Even from a defensive position, it is possible to control a match and eventually turn it your way. You just need to know what opportunities to look for and how to exploit them. That’s what Djokovic needs to learn how to do if he is to succeed at the French Open. And who better to teach him than Toni Nadal. At this point in his career, any coach could probably see Djokovic through to another Australian Open, US Open, or Wimbledon title. Djokovic is strong enough that he could certainly win any of those titles again. However, he still needs help to win the French Open. There is perhaps no one better to do so than Toni Nadal.
Once again, this is pure speculation. I don’t like making guarantees, but I guarantee that the situation I’ve just outlined will never happen. But it’s hard to deny that it could make sense. Toni Nadal and Novak Djokovic could accomplish great things together. As could Boris Becker and Rafael Nadal. So much history could be made. Obviously, there are other factors at play here that would stand in the way of this happening. It’s unlikely that the Nadals will ever part ways. Even if they did, no way would Toni leave his nephew for his rival. At the same time, it seems unlikely that Djokovic would part with Becker when they’re doing so well together at the moment. Like I said, this will never happen. But it wouldn’t be a disaster if it did. It’s fun to think about what could happen if this impossible situation took place. It will never happen. But hypotheticals are so interesting.
Hi everyone. I want to say thank you for all your support over the last two years. I wanted to let you all know that I have joined the tennis writing team at VAVEL USA. Please check them out and continue to read my stuff with VAVEL. For the time being, I will be continue to write for sportsblog, but I will be focusing on VAVEL so please check us out.
- A Fan Obsessed