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02.06.2020 - 16:40 Uhr

Editor's Note: But for the COVID-19 pandemic, Roland Garros would now be underway. During the next two weeks will look back on memorable matches and happenings at the clay-court Grand Slam, which tournament organisers are now hoping to stage in September. This story was originally published on 8 June 2019.It is an examination of ability: technique, tactics, physical-conditioning, emotional and mental stamina. Roland Garros is a great advertisement for the sport, where crowds take matches, grim struggles to heart, and Rod Laver, who arrived in Paris 50 years ago, knew that he faced his toughest fortnight of the year. Every player of consequence was present in 1969, prize money was increasing, and there were new names under the heading, ‘Le comité du tournoi’ on the front page of the 1969 programme. French tennis meant business.“I enjoyed the emotional involvement, watching matches and witnessing the crowds cheer and boo,” Laver told, 50 years on. “Coming back is much more possible on clay than on grass courts. Early on, you looked forward to and dreaded every match, the low-pressure balls, but by Roland Garros in 1969, I was as fit as I’d ever been in my life. In late Spring that year, I remember that the clay was dry, dusty and, as a result, slippery."Laver, who had beaten Andres Gimeno in January for the Australian Open crown, had played at a round-robin tournament in Amsterdam the week before and was confident after claiming the second biggest title of the year, two weeks earlier, at Madison Square Garden in New York over Roy Emerson on a slow, synthetic court. Having swept past the Japanese Koji Watanabe in the Roland Garros first round, the 30-year-old looked up to fellow Australian Dick Crealy.“He was 6’5” and had a big forehand,” recalls Laver. “He hit the ball extremely hard and throughout the first set I was chasing balls. By the time he let up, I was two sets down, but rain stopped play, when it was dark under the lights, at two sets to one up.“I remember waking at 7 a.m. the next day, practised with Emmo before 9am for a 45-minute pre-match workout, then was ready to go for 10:30am, when it was very windy. It wasn’t a spectator’s hour, as I reckon there were four people in the stadium. I won nine of the next 11 games, but Dick recovered from 1-3 in the fifth set to lead 4-3. He missed a volley into an open court, in the ninth game at 40/30. It was the good fortune I had.”Laver completed a 3-6, 7-9, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 second-round victory with the wind on his back, grateful to survive. “The tournament committee were eager to get to the quarter-final stage by the end of the week, so, on the same day, after some lunch, I came out to beat Italian Pietro Marzano [6-1, 6-0, 8-6],” he said.“I then played Stan Smith, the 6’4” big-hitter, who was rapidly improving and I had a tough match against him a month later at Wimbledon. He had a cold, it was cold and the match finished in drizzle. I didn’t want it to be carried over to the next morning [again], so I worked hard in the third set [for a 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 win].”Laver, who first travelled to compete in Paris in 1956, had to learn to play on clay, and prior to 1962, when he won his first calendar-year Grand Slam, had a 6-5 match record at the championship. “I had to learn to play on clay,” said Laver. “I’ve always believed that the key to playing well on clay is having patience and strength in your legs. It is all about accuracy over speed as clay blunts serve power, but it’s an exciting test of your abilities. To me, the importance of getting first serves in was key, as I didn’t have a cannonball serve, but I did fire the occasional ace.”Through to the quarter-finals in 1969, Laver then waited on Gimeno, who shook off nerves to edge past 1961 and 1964 champion Manuel Santana, who had pulled a groin muscle in lunging for a ball in the fourth set. “Perhaps the victory in the previous round, helped him to win the first set against me, but I got down to work by keeping the ball low, slicing my backhand and heading to the net. Slicing was more often the best form of attack, giving you time to approach the net. You didn’t think Gimeno ever thought he could beat you, but he gave a good show and I won in four sets [3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3].”Laver then challenged Tom Okker, a terrifically quick Dutchman with fast reflexes and a hitter of big topspin strokes. “This was early Okker, but he won the first set and I knew that I had to dig in,” says Laver. “By then, I’d sharpened my anticipation and remember half-volleying well and taking the net away from him to win [4-6, 6-0, 6-2, 6-4]."In a re-match of the 1968 Roland Garros final, the sport’s two best players came face-to-face once more for the 75th time – through amateur, pro tour and Open Eras. In the 11th edition of their clay-court rivalry, Laver, who had beaten Ken Rosewall two weeks earlier, 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 at the Dutch Pro Championships, was totally focused as they walked through the dark tunnel in the bowels of the stadium and out onto the main show court. Rosewall had defeated 1966 titlist Tony Roche 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 in the other semi-final.“I played him in the final the year before, when he beat me in four sets,” says Laver. “So I just knew that I had to change my game a little bit. I decided I was going to hit my groundstrokes, heavy groundstrokes and pressure him when I could. Bill Tilden always used to say, “Never change a winning game.” I always knew that a player who played cautiously after building up a lead took a risk, so I’d tend to go hard for the first point of a game, and the first two games of every set.”During the 1969 Roland Garros final, Laver’s groundstroke length kept 1953 champion Rosewall under pressure to force errors. Rosewall was simply unable to pounce on any short ball with his backhand and hit the net to produce crisp, well angled volleys. Laver knew, anything less than keeping his long-time rival behind the baseline and he was in trouble.“It all worked for me,” said Laver, who collected $7,000 in prize money. “I was timing the ball perfectly that day, perfect control from game one. That’s what it takes to win any match. I led 3-1, then went 3-4 down in the first set, but came through 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 [in one hour and 33 minutes]. I think Ken felt that I played him better on instinct. My form stayed all the way through.”Laver would later see a 4-3, 40/0 advantage evaporate in the fifth set of the Roland Garros doubles final with Emerson against John Newcombe and Roche, who won the 13 straight points for the match. But Laver was halfway to the Grand Slam, seven years on from his first in 1962, having conquered the most physically demanding championship. "A Grand Slam year starts in January and ends in September; from the Australian Open and ends with the US Open,” said Laver. “You have to win 28 matches, not beat 128 players in every draw. While I knew Wimbledon and the US Open would be tricky, the dream was alive.”Coming up in July 2019: Laver Reflects On 1969 Wimbledon

Editor's Note: But for the COVID-19 pandemic, Roland Garros would now be underway. During the next two weeks will look back on memorable matches and happenings at the clay-court Grand Slam, which tournament organisers are now hoping to stage in September. This story was originally published on 5 June 2018.“&*#!!” curses Toni Nadal. Interrupt Toni when he is in task mode and the oaths fly out of his mouth like hot sparks from a blacksmith’s anvil. It is important to understand that Toni does not curse casually, nor as a form of insult, rather of exasperation. In this particular case, it is the frustration of being delayed and quite possibly missing a flight from Palma de Mallorca to Madrid. We are at the entrance of the Rafael Nadal Tennis Academy in Manacor, and the airport is nearly an hour’s drive away. I am but one of a handful of obstacles keeping Toni from getting to the airport on time. Standing aside, I watch Toni multi-task. He answers phone calls, signs papers, buttons his dress shirt, ties his leather shoes, and wrestles my oversize travel bag into the back of his two-door Mercedes SLC Roadster. Eventually, the retractable hardtop comes down, my bag goes in and we are ready to go. I briefly consider suggesting a hands-free apparatus for his phone, but then I realise that Toni Nadal is anything but hands-free.Finally we are on our way. Toni looks at his watch and utters one last ‘&*#!!’. But this curse is different, a bit softer, more of a slow, drawn out sigh of relief. Leaving the academy, Toni drives through a mix of newly paved roads, narrow cobblestone alleys and a couple of roundabouts that he accelerates out of with the grace, speed, and confidence one would expect from Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso. As if on cue, the phone finally stops ringing just as Toni hits the Ma-15 highway.“One time I have a big discussion with Pato Clavet,” Toni begins. “Pato believes it is his job to make sure his player has everything in order to play his best; racquets perfect, water, balls, and like this. And I say, ‘this is not my opinion.’ If Rafa forgets his water, I say, ‘Well, it is your problem, today you don’t drink water.’ My work is not to bring water. Do you want to be a professional coach or a waiter?”Our route to the airport takes us through the heart of Mallorca, where windmills that used to grind grain and pump water cast long shadows over fields that produce almond, fig and olive trees in great abundance. Restaurants fortified with heavy brick barbeque grills and wood-fired ovens look like they were built to feed legions of Roman soldiers. Meals are peasant food soaked in olive oil and portions are big enough to last for days. While Barcelona may very well be the cradle of Spanish tennis, it is here on the island of Mallorca, part of Spain’s autonomous zone, that lie the clues to how the world’s most successful tennis coach was formed.“The relationship between player and coach is very important,” Toni continues as if some subterranean fire has been stoked inside of him. “Also it is the education that the player gets at home. My family formed my character. My father did not talk too much, but you see what he has done and I learned my character from his example.” There can be no doubt where Toni Nadal’s demarcation line is drawn: respect for people.“In this life, respect is very important as it should come from the younger to the older persons,” Toni says. “Not the other way around. Unbelievable the way the young today behave not showing respect. &*#!!!” Like the great Carthaginian General Hannibal, who was born here in the Balearic Islands, Toni commands by both example and charisma. Just as Hannibal was fueled by a single-minded purpose in defeating Rome, so too has been Toni’s intense focus on forming his nephew. With each military victory, Hannibal’s legend grew, and so too did Toni Nadal’s opinions gain merit with every Grand Slam Rafa won. While the amount of trophies they have collected together is impressive, equally so is that neither Toni nor Rafa fell victim to a trap as old as time. A trap that has tripped many a successful man – hubris.“What I remember most about Toni from my time on Tour was how kind he was to people,” remembers Peter Lundgren, former coach of Roger Federer and other ATP World Tour stars. ”He was always very polite.” Juan Manual Esparcia of Spain, another ATP World Tour coach, has observed Toni and Rafa rise to greatness from the beginning.“Toni puts great emphasis on the education of strong values,” says Esparcia. “Rafa’s attitude to overcome the many adversities he has had to face and doing so in the most gracious manner, the example that Rafa Nadal gives to everyone every day, not only as a professional, but as a person, has Toni’s philosophy written all over it.” Jack Reader, former coach of Viktor Troicki and Alexandr Dolgolopov, echoes a similar opinion.“We often practised with Rafa,” says Reader. “And I never once saw Toni say something to Rafa that Rafa did not immediately acknowledge. I don’t know what Toni would say, but I do know that from the outside theirs seemed a relationship built on absolute respect and trust.”Toni recalls: “I have said to Rafa, 'In my opinion you have to do this, but make what you want'... Do you think that I like to see my nephew’s forehand follow-through wrapping his racquet around his head? Many times I say to him about the biomechanics and physics of a tennis stroke. If you want to put the ball there, then the arm goes here. But make what you want; it is your problem. It is your responsibility.” At heart Toni is a professor. And like any good teacher, he is an astute student. However, his form of communicating is not for the sensitive type.“Normally when you are not stupid you can learn,” Toni declares. “I have watched the greatest players in the world on the practice court and in competition. In this life, when you know that you are not the best and if you want to defeat the best you must be open to new ideas and keep learning to improve.” A good example is Rafa changing his service grip two days before the start of the 2010 US Open. And then another change to the serve came before the 2016 US Open, where they experimented with more slice and angle. That being said, if after consideration Toni does not agree with something, then you will know it immediately.“I talk always about to make the things simple,” Toni says. “Today we have a problem that society believes if it is too simple, then it is difficult to earn too much money. I have seen many people talk about analytics. And they forgot to see how is the player with the ball? What is most important is to arrive good to the ball, follow through and have good movements around the court.”“It is true when you have more information, it is good, but information without the eyes and feeling of the coach is not enough. Many times you cannot see the things that analysts write. For example, the statistics say that you make 10 unforced errors with your backhand today. But maybe that is because your forehand is not right in this moment. A good coach needs to observe with his eyes on the situation, not just numbers on a paper.” Agree or disagree with Toni, he is very consistent on the subject of eliminating excuses.“I was disappointed at Wimbledon in 2013,” Toni admits. “My nephew lost to Steve Darcis. Rafa says to me that he can do nothing as he has knee problems. I say, ‘No, I don’t agree. If this match was in the final would you play like this?’ After many years I know it is impossible to win always – it is a part of the game – but let us speak the truth.”Esparcia says, “I think Toni’s best quality and strength is knowing to analyse the needs in each situation in order to reach the next goal... To give Rafa the right solution at specifically the right moment, and to find the way to motivate him, regardless of the circumstances he might be facing.”“Another time, in 2006 at the US Open,” Toni remembers, “and my nephew is complaining about the balls, that he cannot give them spin. Every day he is telling me the same. And so I say to Rafael, “OK, I go to the tournament director and see if he can change the balls for you.’ Then Rafael lost to James Blake. I go home to Mallorca and he went to Beijing and wins the tournament with the same balls he lost to Blake. So I ask him how the balls can take your spin in Beijing but not New York?” There can be no better proof positive of the Pygmalion effect theory than Toni and Rafael Nadal.“I remember once we were in Barcelona at Carlos Moya’s house,” Toni recalls. “Rafa was 15 or maybe 16, and Carlos says to me, ‘Toni, would you sign your name that in the future that Rafael will be good like Alberto Costa?’ And I say, ‘No, I don’t sign because I believe that Rafael will be better.’ And Carlos Moya was a little surprised. Because immediately he says, ‘Do you sign that in the future Rafael will be like Carlos Moya?’ And I say, ‘OK, yes, because you were No. 1 in the world.’ But I did not sign anything. When I went out of the house with my nephew that night I said to Rafael, ‘You can be better than Carlos Moya, but I do not want to show disrespect to him in his house.’ I knew my nephew was special.”“For me was always too important to form the player,” Toni continues. “I was always happy when we were on the court and I was able to construct his game.” Jose Perlas is one of the ATP World Tour’s most recognised coaches. There is not much in professional tennis, Spain or worldwide, that he has not seen.“In some ways it was a perfect storm,” begins Perlas. “The Nadal family had experience of being athletes at the highest level of sport. Toni knew what it took to be good, and he also knew how much work it took to sustain that level. He was a tennis coach who had very strong opinions and he spoke with great conviction. Then Rafa had all the physical and mental gifts of an exceptional athlete, and the intense hunger to be great. Toni was an extremely dedicated professional coach who understood how to use his authority while assembling a team of experts around Rafa.” As we enter the airport a journalist and camera crew are assembled and waiting on Toni to arrive. Though Toni may not be on the ATP World Tour any more, he is still in demand. When your pupil has 16 Grand Slams and is considered one of the greatest players in the history of tennis, your opinions matter. Quite possibly, Toni might be the last of the breed. That species of tennis coach who commands from the frontline while saying what needs to be said without fear of retribution. The coach of yesteryear who demands hard work every day, a good attitude, respect for the game and those people associated with it. And no matter how great the stakes or painful the loss, refuses to make excuses while offering a simple no-frills match analysis. My guess is that Harry Hopman would certainly approve of Toni Nadal.- Reproduced with permission from Elite Tennis Journal