Legends: Nick Bollettieri
Originally published on: 16/10/12 00:00
This article featured in the September issue of tennishead…
Talking to Bollettieri just before he accepted the ITF’s Lifetime Achievement Award, I came to understand the man who has had a hand in developing the careers of an abundance of tennis greats, and is credited with developing the first tennis academy to combine sport and education.
Some would say Bollettieri has been snubbed by the USA’s International Hall of Fame that has never welcomed him into its elite membership. The 81-year-old New York-born coach has ruffled some feathers on his journey through tennis.
Forthright in his view that champions are not made, but born, he dismissed with strong language the view of the author, professor Anders Ericsson, that suggests if you took 100 players and gave them 10,000 hours of training they will become champions. “He’s full of s**t, in plain English,” was the American’s assessment. “There is no way that would happen.”
That a man who knew relatively little about tennis has come to have such influence in a sport that as a youth he thought was “a sissy game” is the stuff of dreams. He never played tennis until his junior year at college when his uncle suggested he take it up when he was home for a summer vacation. “Being a fairly good athlete I did quite well and I went back to college and they needed a sixth man. I’m not saying I made the team, but they needed a sixth man so I was the man,” he says.
After that, Bollettieri spent two years as a paratrooper, before, at his father’s request, he read law. While studying, he started coaching tennis at Victory Park in Miami. “It had two tennis courts with a big stone wall and broken down fences and my pro shop was a broken Pepsi machine with an umbrella through the middle.”
Although he had no experience of coaching, Bollettieri says his wife at the time was in touch with a local coach who would tell her, “Tell Nick this is an Eastern grip, this is how you shake hands with the racket.” Bollettieri admits he has a lot to thank him for. “Slowly but surely I began learning a little bit about the game.”
After only three months at law school, Bollettieri was forced into a change of direction. “I didn’t drop out, I flunked out, and I told my Dad I would become the most famous coach in the world."
Through a chance meeting with the mother of Puerto Rican-born pro Charlie Pasarell, Nick eventually found himself as Director of Tennis at Dorado Beach, where he stayed for 17 years. In 1978 he purchased 40 acres of land in Florida with $1 million borrowed from a friend and established what was to become the first academy-style training centre.
The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy (NBTA) was the first full-time tennis boarding school to combine intense training on the court with a custom-designed academic curriculum. In 1987 the academy was bought by IMG and, to cut a long story short, IMG Academies has grown to cover 450 acres, serve seven sports and has 650 full-time employees. There are 55 tennis courts, 10,000 square feet of weightlifting space and 13,000 junior, collegiate, adult and professional athletes passing through each year.
What Bollettieri lacked in tennis knowledge he made up for in other ways. “I read people and there are no two people alike, everyone is different, so how do you communicate with them? You have to study background, their family background, how they’re doing at school, their athleticism and that begins to help you. Educators today have to become much better listeners.”
Four-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova, who arrived with her father at Bollettieri’s academy as a seven-year-old, says that her former coach “has a way of knowing what to say in the right moments”…
By Bridget Marrison