"“Nothing can stop a man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal.” - Thomas Jefferson
( Photo credit: Art Seitz ©2009 )
He never played tournament tennis yet is recognized as one of the sport's premier coaches and innovators. He fractures the English language in almost every sentence yet is a frequent speaker at prestigious universities. He's 77 yet puts in grueling 12-hour workdays starting at 5 a.m.
Nick Bollettieri, the son of middle-class second-generation Italian-Americans, fell in love with tennis relatively late, when he was a nondescript college player. After dropping out of law school, he took a part-time job as a public parks tennis instructor in North Miami Beach, Florida. With the entrepreneurial flair of Andrew Carnegie and the motivational skills of Dale Carnegie, he would go on to coach 10 world No. 1 players, most notably superstars Andre Agassi and Monica Seles, and change the sport forever with a revolutionary new concept: the year-round, tennis boarding academy.
The renowned 56-court Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida, has trained scores of world-class pro players and hundreds who earned international and national junior rankings and college scholarships. In 1978, Bollettieri, a former Army paratrooper, created a strict, highly structured "boot camp" environment that made or broke aspiring students. Agassi once confided, "I hated it at Bollettieri's academy. The only way I could get out was to succeed." Jelena Jankovic recently said: "We fought all day in matches like our lives depended on it. You had to play everyone; that's where I learned to battle it out."
Along his exciting and controversial journey, Bollettieri gained many admirers but also plenty of critics. Some prominent figures, like John McEnroe, even questioned whether Bollettieri knew much about the game. His acrimonious, highly publicized break-ups with Agassi, Seles, Mary Pierce and Boris Becker stunned the tennis world, although he later reestablished friendships with them.
One of his eight wives once confronted Nick with an ultimatum: Agassi or her. He chose Agassi, his all-time favorite protege and his first Grand Slam champion.
On Bollettieri's 53-year passion for his profession and his students, noted TV analyst Mary Carillo said, "Nick is a believer − and he doesn't just believe in himself. He believes in his sport."
Who is Nick Bollettieri, anyway?
Here's how a visionary, showman, and promoter made a profound impact on professional and amateur tennis that will last for decades.
Paul Fein: When you first started giving lessons at Victoria Park in North Miami Beach, did you ever envision that 53 years later at age 77 you would have coached 10 world No. 1 players, revolutionized the sport with your academy system of mass teaching, and still be teaching and coaching tennis?
Nick Bollettieri: Hell, no! One thing about me has been both a blessing and a curse − I only live in the moment. I don't carry any baggage from the past with me. That's helpful when you've been married as many times as I have. If I didn't move on, then I'd need a trailer hitch and a big ol' U-Haul by now! I also don't worry about what will happen tomorrow. I just do what I love to do which is help people − the kids are still my favorites − reach their greatest potential, both on the court and off. I never intended to do anything other than that, and to this day I still love doing what I do. Everything else that has resulted from all my efforts has been icing on the cake.
In your 1996 autobiography, My Aces, My Faults, you wrote that only a year later you told your father, who wanted you to become a lawyer, "Dad, I'm gonna become the number one tennis coach in the world." What gave you that confidence so quickly?
My parents always encouraged me to have fun and do what I wanted to do. My dad said, "Son, if you feel you can become the No. 1 coach in the world, I'll support you. But you're always responsible for the consequences." So when I dropped out of law school in the '50s, my dad was extremely supportive. That's actually what gave me the encouragement to try to be the best. That's the sort of encouragement that my dad gave me in everything. He didn't say very much, but he always encouraged me to do what I thought I wanted to do. And that's the philosophy I've always stood by.
You were a standout high school football player. But you impressed Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, for another reason. Please tell me what happened during that chance encounter nearly 50 years ago and how it helped your career.
I was teaching at Dorado Beach [Hotel in Puerto Rico] in the '60s and '70s, and Vince Lombardi was playing golf, and he would stop by, and one time he said, "You know, you're very good with kids. You should be with kids." So back in the '60s when I worked one summer at the Bath and Tennis Club in Chicago, I didn't last too long there, and I called him. He and Art Nielsen got me started at Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. That's how I started my first camp. It was at Wayland Academy. Vince really inspired me to work with children.
You've said that your experience as a U.S. Army paratrooper has influenced everything you do. How has it influenced you?
It influenced me by being with a group of people who were all volunteers. They wanted to be special − dress special, act special, take care of themselves, be physically fit, mentally alert. That was all done on a volunteer basis. And that's the type of person I always was and hoped to be for the rest of my life. I wanted to be with a group of people who wanted to do extraordinary things. The paratroopers were that type of outfit, and that's why I volunteered to go into the paratroopers.
Who influenced you most in your life?
First and foremost, my dad, James Bollettieri. He was brilliant, kind, soft-spoken and well-liked by so many. He expected all of his three kids to work hard, to be honest, and to help others, which is exactly how he lived his life. Throughout my entire life I don't recall ever hearing my Dad raise his voice, he simply earned people's respect. He was always very supportive of me in whatever I wanted to do, as long as I followed his three requirements. His belief in me was the foundation of the confidence I have in myself today. I honestly believe there isn't anything that I can't do well − with the exception of schoolwork! − if I put my mind and effort into it.
Who else has greatly influenced you?
Arthur Ashe certainly influenced me a lot when we worked with inner-city people in the Ashe-Bollettieri Program. Arthur always wanted to give disadvantaged people greater opportunities. Its focus was to bring African- American talent to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. Through the program we were able to bring in future pro players Jamea Jackson, and Shenay Perry as well as Jennifer Magley. My own children have also inspired and influenced me.
Young people have a certain energy and enthusiasm about them that I plug into every day on the court and recharge my own batteries. I truly believe that having surrounded myself with young people my entire life has kept me young in mind, body and spirit. My five children and three grandchildren are constant reminders of what is really important in life family and friends who are like family. I've been very blessed with lots of both! In fact, I love being a father so much that Cindi and I will soon add another Bollettieri Bambino to the familyby adopting a little one from Ethiopia.
Of all the champions you developed, none evolved during his pro career and after it more than Andre Agassi. In 2001 you famously said, "When I had Andre for six-and-one-half years, my main job was to keep him out of jail." During those six-and-one-half years, did you ever expect that Andre would win eight Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal and that he'd turn into a humanitarian and philanthropist?
First of all, the reason I always stood with and supported Andre is because he was an unusual boy, and he always had unusual characteristics. I felt that if I was lenient with Andre, then in the long run I knew he had some special traits that would blossom later on. He has certainly proved, not just to me but to the whole world, that he was more than just a tennis player. He does a lot of wonderful things for children. He's really a leader and a fantastic speaker. But he also represented the sport extremely well when he played it.
Let's play a word association game with the nine other world No. 1 players you taught or coached.
Monica Seles − Relentless. She would work weeks, months, to develop one shot, and she would never stop until that shot was developed.
Jim Courier − Workhorse. He lacked a backhand and other abilities to create, but he worked harder than anybody else to develop a big forehand and a strong serve, and his work ethic was unparalleled.
Venus Williams − Beautiful. She's beautiful to watch. She's very graceful. She covers the court effortlessly. She dresses elegantly. She's a pleasure to watch.
Serena Williams − Athletic. Serena is what coaches look for: the build, the talent and the ability to be a fighter and compete aggressively.
Boris Becker − Meticulous. Boris would plan every move that he made. That's what made him so interesting.
Martina Hingis − Thinker. She was a brilliant thinker on the court. She did exactly what she had to do to win. She wouldn't beat you up with power. But she never missed.
Jelena Jankovic − Perfectionist. She was always moaning and groaning that this went wrong and that went wrong, but in the long run she put all of those things together and has become one hell of a player.
Marcelo Rios − Disappointment. He was by far the most talented student I ever had in my 53 years. He could do it all. He worked extremely hard in the gym and on the court. But he never lived up to the responsibilities of being a sportsman. He didn't appreciate children. He didn't say thank you or sign autographs.
Maria Sharapova − Intimidating. She's always had a self-confident air about herself − her physique, her makeup. She has a warm smile, but underneath that smile she is competitive as hell.
Although sexy and sassy Anna Kournikova ranked No. 1 in doubles, she never won a singles tournament. What kept Kournikova, one of your most talented prospects, from reaching her potential?
There was only one Anna Kournikova in my 53 years. She was a unique and special person who has given an awful lot to the game. She inspired a lot of Russians to play tennis. What probably prevented Anna from winning a lot of singles was not having a major weapon. She also lacked the ability to do enough with her forehand and serve. But when she played doubles, she was a sharp volleyer and very smart on the court. Right now, if Anna went out on the practice courts and started hitting [at the Sony Ericsson Open], only one or two players in the tournament would get more attention than her because of her beauty, charisma and popularity.
On the "20/20" TV program 30 years ago, you said: "If we could eliminate the parents completely, our job and the results would be three to five hundred percent ahead of what it is right now…. The parents put so much pressure on their children in sports today. It's alarming. It's unbelievable." In your experience, have tennis parents gotten better or worse since then?
They've probably gotten worse since then. The huge television exposure has had a big effect because parents see young players reaching stardom and getting big prize money. Parents are led to believe that their child can be one of these stars. Overall, the parents are unrealistic in most cases. What they should be looking for is for their children to get a scholarship or a partial scholarship to college, especially if they are Americans. Also, Americans should realize they can do a multitude of things to achieve economic success, whereas in Russia or the Czech Republic or China, they are limited to what they can do. American parents tend to put their child into one thing and limit them and think that, through their driving, their child will succeed. They say, "I'll be there at every match, I'm watching them." I don't know if it helps much. If you look at the history of tennis, you'll probably see that only 10 percent of parents have been instrumental in helping. The Connorses, the Everts, Richard Williams, they certainly have helped their children. But in many more cases, it doesn't work that way.
Would you please tell me about your brightest young prospects today, and specifically, what makes them so special and what areas they need to improve:
Kei Nishikori (19) − Kei has to improve his mental approach and realize he's no longer the young boy on the way up. He's now a professional. And he has to start performing like a professional. Second, we're hoping his arm injury is not serious. Third, he has to get more power on his serve. But he's very, very talented. He moves extremely well. He's a shotmaker. But sometimes shotmaking can prove counter-productive. So he'll have to play fewer low-percentage shots and become more consistent. But it looks like he has a very good future.
Michelle Larcher de Brito (16) − Michelle has come a long way. Her father is her fulltime coach now. Michelle has to play more imaginatively. She positions herself too far behind the baseline, so she'll have to move in closer. She has to add variety to her game and buy time [when she's on the defensive] because a player her size just can't keep banging the ball. Her opponents are bigger and stronger, so she'll have to add angles and spins. But her serve is her biggest liability. A reporter from Portugal told me yesterday that in eight matches recently she's had 68 doubles faults. So I will suggest to her father that she starts using a simpler, shorter no-windup motion.
Yuki Bhambri (17) − Yuki is an exceptionally bright boy. He needs to put on about 15 or 20 pounds. He's about 6'1" and he has an unusual serve motion but it's quite effective. His groundstrokes are superb. And he's very good at the net. He has a bright future, but he needs to get stronger physically. He's very easy to work with. When you have the India background, sometimes you are a little too laid-back, and you have to be a little more aggressive. But he has the make-up to be a professional player.
Ryan Harrison (16) − Ryan is a very excitable young man. I've worked on his forehand, which has been a weakness. He's a superb volleyer, has a very good backhand and a good serve, and it looks like he's going to have a big physique. He has to learn to control his emotions. If he can do that, he will dictate his future in tennis.
Christian Harrison (14) − Christian is the best young boy coming up. He's Ryan's brother. He hasn't developed physically yet. But despite being only 14, he has the mind of a professional on the road. He's very competitive but he controls himself. He has a super backhand. He can play defensive tennis, offensive tennis. He's a comfortable volleyer. He knows what to do on the court. We have high hopes for him.
Filip Krajinovic (17) − Filip is damn good! He's got it all. His problem is that he's a good-looking boy, and he'll have to be fighting off the girls. He needs 15 or 20 pounds of muscle. He's electric. He moves well. He's a shotmaker. He has fantastic groundstrokes. He's comfortable at the net. He can do it all. He just has to remain disciplined.
Victoria Duval (13) − Victoria is my pick of the three black girls [including Sachia Vickery and Alicia Black]. Her mother is very easy to work with and is a very understanding lady. Vicky will probably be built like Venus. Betsy McCormack and I spend a lot of time with her, and she has a lot of the traits to become a professional player. She understands the court [geometry], she moves extremely well, her groundstrokes are superb, she's comfortable at net. We're working on her serve. She has a bright future.
Sachia Vickery (14) − Sachia is no longer at the academy. She's not going to be big physically, but she has amazing footwork and balance and anticipation. That's her biggest asset. She's relentless. She's also comfortable at net. She has a good serve.
Alicia Black (11) − Alicia is already as sound in her technique as a youngster can be at age 11. Her future will depend on how strong she gets and how well she can cope with the pressure of her mother. And that's not going to be easy.
In 2001 you seemed to predict, correctly as it turned out, that U.S. men's tennis would have a lean decade when you said: "We succeeded because the country's best players went to the battleground every day and beat the crap out of each other. Where is that battleground in America today?" Is that the main thing that is wrong with American tennis today?
No, it isn't. What's wrong with American tennis today is that we're fighting against the world. Remember back in the '90s when we had that great crop of players that included Sampras, Agassi, Courier, Chang and Todd Martin. We were loaded with talent. But there were basically six or eight other top countries. Now we're facing the entire world. To get another group of players like that is next to impossible. What we did then was to put some of those players on the same battleground and also support them financially. We didn't have referees and coaches on those courts when they battled it out. They cheated, they punched noses, they threw rackets. They learned how to compete. We had a lot of competition at the same location. This is what Patrick McEnroe is trying to do. He has a very good team of coaches in Jose Higueras and Martin Blackman and Jay Berger. Most of those guys came through our academy. Patrick's job is not easy, but he is one of the very best choices the USTA could have made.
In your autobiography you said the USTA snubbed you for 30 years, and you blamed the USTA for the lack of rising stars. Now you and your academy are cooperating closely with the USTA. Why are you doing this? And, specifically, in what ways, are you cooperating?
When I walk around at the U.S. Open and people tell me, "Nick, it's time to help the U.S. develop top players," I certainly feel an obligation. Lately, we've been putting more time into the American players, and I've given several full scholarships to the academy, including the Harrison boys, Vicky Duval and Alicia Black and Sachia Vickery. It's also important that America is a leader in the tennis industry. How America fares will have a major influence on sponsors, television and the growth of tennis throughout the world. I'm also very comfortable with Patrick McEnroe, Jose Higueras and the team Patrick has put around him. Right now I'm on the USTA Elite Player Development Coaches Advisory Board with Patrick, Kathy Rinaldi and others and consult with him on a weekly basis.
When I gave my presentation last September to Patrick's board and workers, 36 of them, I said they all had to dedicate their lives, 365 days a year, to the development of players. But to succeed, they must utilize all the resources of the United States, all the coaches, all the college coaches. The USTA cannot go to a location where the pro has worked with a student for five or six years and has dedicated his life and monies and then say, "It's my student now." The USTA can't do that. The USTA has to support coaches who sometimes are not part of the USTA but are individual private coaches and still give them financial support and also invite them to the USTA camps. The key also is for the coaches of America to be open-minded and agree to send their players to the USTA. It has to be a team effort.
Is it also important that elite American prospects practice and compete more on grass and clay?
In the first few years when a child is learning the game, it should be done on a surface where the ball bounces the same way all the time. So I believe a hard court is where the technique is first taught. However, when you learn the technique, you have to learn to keep the ball in play, to create, to be strong physically, and be able to play long points. This is where playing on clay is vital. I don't believe the future of American tennis will depend on playing on grass. Higueras is a big advocate of playing a lot on clay. At the Sony Ericsson this week in Miami, there is only one serve and volleyer, Taylor Dent, who reached the third round. During the first week at Wimbledon, the player who can serve and attack has an advantage. But the second week at Wimbledon, the grass is totally different. That's why when I was with Andre [Agassi], we always feared getting through the first week, not the second week. Grass forces you to do a little more with your slice serve, while the kicker serve is a little less effective on grass the first week. Also, on grass, you have to have more touch. You have to learn the drop shot, the drop volley, an underspin approach shot. But remember you have only the warm-up tournament and Wimbledon on grass every year.
What is your opinion of QuickStart Tennis, a teaching format used at 1,200 clubs in the U.S. where kids 5 to 8 play on a 36-foot court with a foam tennis ball and preteens play on a 60-foot court with low-compression balls?
Anything that's similar to tennis that gets little kids involved is the way to go. That's the most important thing − whether they're playing short court or three-quarters court or full court. The short court for the little kids makes it a lot more fun and easier. But the main thing is that we want to get those kids started, and get adults involved in Cardio-Tennis, and get everyone out there. Remember that little kids are very impressionable and love tennis if they can have a little bit of success. The shorter court with the slower ball gives them more of a chance to hit the ball in. If they don't hit any balls in the beginning, most kids get very discouraged. But once they hit one or two, they'll come back for more.
Ben Franklin said that critics are your friends because they point out your faults. You've had your share of critics, including John McEnroe who once said, "Nick Bollettieri doesn't know anything about tennis." Which faults have critics pointed out? And how has that criticism helped you?
I appreciate that comment from John, and then two months later John sent his son fulltime to my academy. Actually John and I get along extremely well. But if you read my book, in the next paragraph Patrick McEnroe disagreed with [his brother] John. But John has always been an ally of mine. Over my career I really haven't paid much attention to the critics. My father used to say, "If they're talking about you, they're thinking about you. But if they're not talking about you, you're not doing very much." I've always tried to get along with the press, television and all the coaches and tournament directors. That's really helped me a great deal.
But has anyone ever pointed out a fault, and that criticism has helped you?
Andre Agassi said a terrific thing to me when he was going home on a vacation. He was 14, going on 15. He said, "Nick, do you ever listen to anybody? You'd be surprised what you could learn." That really helped me become a better listener.
That's a major criticism.
I believe a lot of people take criticism as a pure negative. But if you evaluate the criticism and there's some value to it, by God, that's pretty damn good criticism. As my wife always tells me, and she's a pain in the ass, she's always saying that I only want to hear the good things. But you have to hear the other things, too.