Nick Bollettieri is probably the most influential tennis coach ever to step onto a court. Despite the accolades, the appreciation, the champion pupils, he still remains an outsider of sorts in a game steeped in old school snobbery and new school money.
Youth is Wasted on the Young
It’s never too late to learn. That’s the motto of his sports school. He was voted last year into the ATP Tennis Hall of Fame. His list of famous students is prima facie evidence of his expertise.
And yet . . . and yet he remains one of the most underestimated influences on the game. Even a causal tennis fan like me if would have to include Nick Bollettieri in their list of top ten influences.
Bollettieri has his own top ten list, which we will get to later, a list of some of the greatest names in tennis, players that he made number one. His training ground has spawned so many name players —Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova among them — and served as a home base for so many others that he has every right to rest on his laurels.
But Bollettieri is fond of saying that he will rest when he is dead.
Peter Bodo, who writes for Tennis Magazine and for ESPN.com contributor, sees Bollettieri as a force of life who used to be regarded with suspicion like a former lifeguard, just working on his tan. However he has created something at his tennis school academy that is a modern template for coaching The tennis program at IMG Academy, with its 52 courts and 215 students, is called the Bollettieri Tennis Program.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing is that he is still going strong at age 84. He has a work schedule that would put a much younger person to shame.
The question is why.
"I will tell you why, man," Bollettieri growls in a TV interview that comes to me through the joy of the internet. "I just love the excitement. I love getting up, and the action. I love being with action."
One can probably safely assume that the great proportion of octogenarians are huddled round card tables honing their bridge skills, attempting shuffleboard on cruise ships whilst dreaming of long past glory days or gumming down carefully prepared senior-friendly food so as not to further antagonize their already annoyingly irritable bowels.
Not Nick Bollettieri.
He's up before dawn at 4:45 a.m. stretching before prostrating himself across a medicine ball for 150 situps in his kids' playroom. He has two young adopted sons from Africa.
At 6 a.m. he is on the tennis court for his first lesson of the day. He teaches till around 11:30 a.m. and most days then slips into the nearby town of Brandenton—both the town and the man are so sun-drenched they could advertise the Sunshine State for the Florida Chamber of Commerce—for lunch. If you are in town drop into the South Philly Cheese Steak café, his favorite destination and you may well see him.
He’s back on the court from 1-5 p.m. Most days he prefers to wrap up the active workday with a few holes of golf.
At night he answers email, takes and makes calls and pens stories for various websites around the world. At 11:30 p.m. he finally turns in, often whilst watching a tournament on television. Every vigilant, he is constantly on the lookout for new talent, the next number one.
He barely sleeps, maybe 4-5 hours. No one including his present wife, Cindi, can figure how he gets by with so little rest. Yet, even this supposed repose is often interrupted by a call from player in Asia or Europe who needs last-minute advice.
Always on the move, in mid-June he is in Sonoma, California visiting the Sonoma Valley Tennis Association, looking for talent and visiting with old friends.
He has been married eight times, perhaps his most awesome achievement. Cindi, his latest wife, calls him Peter Pan and says that when she married him she knew he was already married to the academy. Which if fair enough. She also says he is eternally youthful.
But did she know her husband had already been married seven times before? That’s two more wife than serial killer and former King of England Henry the VIII. It is also one more marriage than former CNN host Larry King and one less than former actress, Zsa Zsa Gabor, who is still alive and kicking at 98 years old.
If persistence and longevity are the keys to sporting success, then Nick Bollettieri’s disciplined life must be exemplary to his students: his boarding academy is an equal opportunity land of athletic success for all comers.
Bollettieri, don’t you know, reinvented tennis instruction at the elite level. The list of great tennis coaches is short. Most would include Bollettieri, along with Robert Lansdorp (Pete Sampras, Tracy Austin, Lindsay Davenport, Maria Sharapova) and Bob Brett (Boris Becker, Goran Ivanisevic). Tennis coaching is a moveable feast. Players change coaches, sometimes in midstream. Becker started off with Bollettieri and ended up with Bob Brett. Sharapova also switched. Nicky B appears to be best when he gets them very young.
He has mentored champions. The first player to reach No. 1 under Bollettieri was Becker, in 1991. The earliest Bollettieri pupils to reach no. 1 were Monica Seles, Jim Courier and Andre Agassi. r have a long-standing relationship with Bollettieri, having visited the academy for years, and they often prepare for Grand Slams Mary Pierce and Anna Kournikova also trained at the academy. More recent students training with Bollettieri include Sharapova and Jelena Janković (from Belgrade, Serbia, aged 12). Both became no. 1.
His influence will be on display all across the grounds at Wimbledon and the US Open this summer, from the players still seeking titles like Serena Williams, to those, who having retired from competition, provide the commentary such as Boris Becker.
He was swiftly followed by Monica Seles, Courier and Agassi. Later, Martina Hingis and Marcelo Rios climbed to the top. The Williams sisters have a long-standing relationship with Bollettieri and more recently, Sharapova who arrived from Siberia at the age of 9, and Jankovic became No. 1.
Commitment Is the Greater Part of Valor
“We’re gonna talk about the forehand. Simple tip. Talk about a flashlight. If that butt end was a flashlight then we want that flashlight to be aiming at some point toward the court we’re aiming at. What happens often is that the butt end ends up pointing to the side of the court. And that triggers the feet to set up in the wrong direction as your heading to the ball. We want the butt of the racket to be aimed at the ball that is coming to us. We want the butt of the racket to be facing the (oncoming) ball for as long as possible. As you take it back you get that butt showing beautifully.”
He got them young and taught them how to step inside the baseline and hit that big inside-out forehand. That changed the nature of the game.
It is a long journey, in every way, from Nyagan in Western Siberia to Bradenton on the west coast of Florida. In 1993, at the age of six, Maria Sharapova attended a tennis clinic in Moscow run by Martina Navratilova. The former champion, one of the greatest of all time, recommended professional training with Nick Bottletteri who had previously trained Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, and Anna Kournikova.
It was a consummation of talent matching American chutzpah with Russian determination. It was also a partnership that could not have been dreamed of ten years earlier during the Cold War, an era of frigid relations in all things, not just sport, between the USSR and the USA.
Teacher and pupil could hardly have come from different origins. He was born in leafy Pelham, N.Y., just a short drive from the tennis center, in 1931. That was the same year "The Star-Spangled Banner" became the national anthem, Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion and Stalin presented the first five year plan. In 1987 the year Sharapova was born the French signed a deal with Disney for a theme park near Paris, a German pilot called Mathias Rust evades Soviet air control and lands his plane in Red Square and Ronald Reagan challenges Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.
Little did anyone know that two years later the Wall would come tumbling down like the legendary walls of Jericho and eastern European ladies were stirring to their assault on the world tennis rankings.
Bollettieri’s early life was classic post-war Americana. The New Yorker went to tiny Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., where he made the tennis team and graduated with a degree in philosophy and later served in the U.S. Army, where he attained the rank of first lieutenant. After a brief time at the University of Miami Law School—his father wanted him to be a lawyer—he eventually quit to become a tennis coach. His first tennis camp was at Wayland Academy in Beaver Dam, Wis., and he gradually worked his into being tennis director at Dorado Beach Hotel in Puerto Rico.
Here the two are similar. Sharapova’s rags to riches story is classic Americana too. She pulled herself up by the proverbial tennis shoe laces. Her father Yuri Sharapov borrowed to enable him and his daughter, neither of whom could speak English, to travel to the United States in 1994. Arriving in Florida with savings of US$700, Sharapova's father took various low-paying unskilled jobs to fund her lessons until she was old enough to be admitted to the IMG Academy.
"She's as competitive as anybody in the world," her occasional mentor Nick Bollettieri said of the teenage Sharapova when she finally became number one in 2005.
The wily mentor changes lives.
In 1978, on the sheer force of his personality and vision, he founded the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla. It was the first major tennis boarding school. It changed the way tennis was taught at the elite junior level.
Jim Courier, the American champion, was 14 years old when he arrived in Bradenton in 1984 after a scholarship offer from Bollettieri. It was a step up. He soon went from practicing against pedestrian juniors to hitting with the best juniors in the world.
"You're 15, 16 years old and you're down there with Andre Agassi, Yannick Noah and Johan Kriek," says Courier, who famously felt left out when Bollettieri took over coaching rival Andre Agassi. "You're a junior, but you're training as a professional.”
Bollettieri, true to his hyperactive personality, taught an aggressive brand of tennis that was ahead of its time. He helped create a new-world game. The big forehand, stepping into the court and taking the ball on the rise, in another generation, would have called for an approach shot. But this technique was pre-empting that approach.
One of his earliest successes was former top-five player Jimmy Arias who once recalled hitting with some unknown young kid from Las Vegas, a kid with flashy strokes and a nasty backhand. The kid crushed a winner here and there but sprayed balls all over the court.
Arias blitzed him with his big forehand.
"Nick would say, 'Did you see those shots!' " recalls Arias, now a commentator for Tennis Channel. "I said, 'But he doesn't hit any in. What are you talking about?' "
The kid was Andre Agassi.
Failure to Communicate is Not An Option
The secret of his success, Bollettieri has insisted, is communication.
He believes he has the gift of relating to people in a very simple way. With Nicky B there is no talk about kinetic change or biomechanics.
"To tell you the truth," he says, "I don't know shit. I don't really know all those expressions, but what I do know is to be able to relate to people in a manner that fits into who they are. That's the biggest thing I have."
Courier says: "It's tough to encapsulate Nick. He's a great motivator. He knows how to push your buttons, to make you do what you need to do."
Bollettieri believes that coaches too often try to mold players into what they want them to be. He has always seen another way, making adjustments, working with his clients, adjusting to “their idiosyncrasies, their talent, their personality.”
He’s brash and always ready to ruminate on his favorite subjects, tennis and Nick Bollettieri. In interviews he often refers to himself in the third-person, as if he can hardly believe his good fortune in being, well, himself.
There was an online piece in the Wall Street Journal, which said Bollettieri is perhaps "the most prolific tennis coach in the history of the game" as well the most successful and broadly influential tennis coach.
But not everyone agrees with this assessment. John McEnroe, who battled Boris Becker for supremacy, doesn’t care for the Bollettieri approach.
Still, the old man, who was only admitted last year to the Tennis Hall of Fame, has nurtured more top-rated tennis players than anyone else. Is he surprised about all the champions over the years? He says he never kept track of them until it got to nine and someone told him.
"Shit," he told one newspaper in a moment of self-deprecation, "I'm lucky."
Part of The Team
Some kids, the inevitable rebel, need a firm hand. The Williams sisters do not fall into that category. Bollettieri traveled with Serena for a spell in 2002 and helped her gain the No. 1 ranking. The Williamses have visited Bradenton for years and, even to this day, often prep for Grand Slams there.
“I always knew my position with the Williamses, Bollettieri has said, “I'm just part of the team."
Jankovic came to the academy as a 12-year-old, direct from Belgrade, Serbia. She always attended school and played tennis only in the afternoons, unlike some of the other girls like Maria Sharapova and Tatiana Golovin. Jankovic played on the back courts and dreamed of moving up to the front courts. After five hours of school in the morning, she'd grab a quick lunch, change out of her school uniform and play tennis for the rest of the afternoon.
"It was difficult for me to be there as a young kid. I didn't know the language. But it made me quite strong, because there was a lot of competition over there. Playing at his academy, playing with all the girls and having his help was amazing," she told one interviewer. "You learn how to compete from a really early age. You're battling. It doesn't matter if you're playing against a skinny player, a fat player, a tall player, big, whoever. It doesn't matter even the age. You're playing against anybody, and this teaches you how to really play the game, because it's not the same just practicing.”
In his ninth decade, he's still got the passion for tennis. He always has something coming up on the farm in Bradenton. He might tell you about these three young African-American girls: Sachia Vickery, who won the Gator Bowl and Easter Bowl, then turned 13 and won three of five ITF tournaments; Victoria Duval, winner of the national 14s; and a 10-year-old phenom named Alicia Black.
If you have a really young beginning player, maybe you go to Rick Macci or Robert Lansdorp, but for a finishing school many pros agree that you won't do any better than Nick Bollettieri.
Says Bollettieri: "God just gave me the gift to look and be able to relate to them in a manner that they accepted, because everybody is different."
Sleep When You are Dead in the Hall of Fame
Bollettieri just keeps ongoing. Like a tennis shark. He has to move or die. He nothing left to prove to himself or anyone in tennis. Yet this begs the question: Why do it? Why awake at dawn? Why sweat all day in the searing sun. Why allow yourself to be pulled in 50 different directions? Why does this many times husband, father and grandfather press on?
"Take that away and he would not be alive anymore, at least not in his soul, "He'll go out with his boots on," Jim Courier has said.
The sport-obsessed kid from Pelham New York who used to sell candy door-to-door in the neighborhood and hide in the back at church in order to make a quick exit to the playing fields for American football and baseball. In his neighborhood tennis was a sport for mama’s boys.
And until today, in the rarified sport of tennis,Bollettieri remains an outsider, still a fast-talking hustler. As much as he personifies tennis establishment, many continue to see his enthusiasm as Barnum & Bailey schtick. He missed induction to twice, in 2010 and 2012, into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Agassi, who had his share of highs and lows during a long association with Bollettieri is on record saying with his support: "I didn't hesitate in my own vote," he says. "I think the guy has given a lot to the game, and I think he should be recognized for it."
There are others who clearly don't believe Bollettieri has earned the right.
Critics have charged that Bollettieiri's players are one-dimensional, big-serve, big-forehand bashers.
John McEnroe once said Bollettieiri "doesn't know anything about tennis."
Success sometimes breeds resentment. And McEnroe famously had his troubles with beating Bollettieri’s pupil, Boris Becker. There's no question that he is as much promoter as he is coach. But he has backed up the hype. He is in the Italian Hall of Fame, the USTA Hall of Fame, the USPTA Hall of Fame, the Florida Hall of Fame and graduated to the ATP Hall of Fame in 2014.
That ain't bad. Anyone that's been married eight times must have unfathomable skills in persistent and know how to pick themselves up off the floor and start going again. If momentary setbacks and critical opinion bothered him he would never have achieved what he has. Indeed, none of it has dampened his irrepressible spirit and indefatigable energy. He remains a whirling dervish of activity, traveling to tournaments, and of course teaching and coaching the thousands that come through Bradenton every year.
Times change of course. The man who practically invented the big serve/big forehand philosophy says the modern game is too athletic for that recipe. It's also a global game where Americans do not dominate as in generations past.
The shark keeps moving. The last chapter has yet to be written.