His eternal tan, his permanent slightly carnivorous smile and his unwavering confidence almost made him a caricature of America dominating the world. On his “Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy” (IMG Academy) courts and under the Florida sun, the greatest players on the planet played: Boris Becker, Jim Courier, Pete Sampras and many others. Nicholas James Bollettieri, better known as Nick Bollettieri, one of the greatest coaches in the history of tennis, died at the age of 91.
“Nickiiiiii, that’s what I called you for the longest time. Thank you for your time, your knowledge, your commitment, your expertise, your willingness to share your skills, your personal interest in guiding me and giving me the best opportunity to achieve my dreams. You were a dreamer and an actor, and a pioneer in our sport, truly unique,” commented former world number 2 German Tommy Haas, one of his former students.
Born on July 31, 1931 in New York State, Bollettieri’s early life was spent under the flag and in the Marine Corps at the end of World War II. He graduated from the University of Mobile in Alabama with a degree in philosophy, and after starting to study law, which he quickly abandoned, in 1956 he became interested in a sport that at the time was still reserved for the elite: tennis.
Credo: fighting spirit
He becomes a monitor. For 20 years he has been a trainer like thousands on the planet. He is especially the tennis director of a hotel in Puerto Rico. Nothing particularly distinguishes him from the others except his method. For training future champions, Nick Bollettieri has only one credo: the development of “fighting spirit”, self-confidence, the desire to fight even when everything is lost. Anyone who doubts has no place at home. A former soldier, the UV-shot trainer imposes hellish cadences on the players who agree to work with him.
In 1978, Bolettieri founded his academy in Bradenton on Florida’s west coast: “He turned 40 acres of tomato fields into an epicenter of sports and performance known throughout the world,” summarizes ESPN. Tennis is not just a game here, under the smile of the IMG Academy sometimes it looks like a military camp. Lights out at 9pm; fixed time for training, meals; limiting outings and family gatherings; smoking, non-alcoholic drinks are prohibited and in case of breaking the rules, the sanctions are severe: Mr. Bolettieri does not laugh with discipline. “Young people have to get used to what they see as injustice. A good mind is 80% good physically and vice versa,” he says in his brochures.
Some, over time, increasingly condemn his methods as too harsh for small children. In more than 40 years, hundreds of apprentices have gone to the Academy, and not all of them end up as champions, crushed by hellish rhythms: “I play for almost six hours a day and I feel that I am making a lot of progress. Now I put more topspin, so I make less mistakes. In the morning, from 5:30 a.m. to 7 a.m., I train with Niko. When we do well, he is pleased. But, sometimes, he shouts very loudly. One day, someone didn’t finish the exercise, he threatened to fire him,” testified in 2006 in our columns one of his recruits, Pierre Durali (then 10 years old), who crossed the Atlantic from Bagnolet to work with the master. He was a great hope. 16 years later, he is no longer ranked on the ATP. “It’ll Make Your Kid a Champion, But It Won’t Be Much Fun,” headlined Sports Illustrated in 1980.
For others, Bolettieri’s method works great. Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Jim Kurir, Boris Becker, Monica Seles, Anna Kournikova, Tommy Haas went to his house. In 1982, the father of a Las Vegas player discovered Nick Bollettieri in a television report. His military methods are not hidden, but he catches the eye of his father, who sends his offspring to Florida. The name of this 12-year-old kid is Andre Agassi. His father pays for the first three months of registration for $3,000, but no longer has the funds to continue the adventure. No matter: Bolettieri who smells a vein welcomes him for free. Agassi will make his fame and glory. In total, 10 world number 1s are students at the Bollettieri academy.