The irrepressible Nick Bollettieri beamed. “I have a son in his 60s,” he boasted, “a daughter in her 50s, a daughter in her 40s, a daughter in her 30s, a daughter in her 20s, a son in his teens, and a son in the 10-and-unders. That ain’t bad.”
And neither was Nick.
He had eight wives, helped develop ten No. 1 players and thousands of pros and weekend warriors. He had a singular vision to create the first ever year-round, live-in tennis academy to shape Slam champions. Two weeks after false reports of his death, the one-of-a-kind, beloved tennis pioneer passed away on December 4, at 91.
The ex-paratrooper with a barrel chest, a perpetual tan and a twinkle in his eye got up every day at 5:30 AM and achieved with a tireless zeal. These days, any teaching pro who can hit a cross-court backhand has his own academy. But few have had more impact on tennis than Nick, who in 1956 left suburban New York to start teaching tennis for $3 an hour in Florida and Puerto Rico.
I loved the guy. So one London morning I went on a pilgrimage to interview the great man. Near Buckingham Palace, at one of the fanciest hotels in town, I went up to his room and there he was. It was a gloomy, gray day, pouring rain, but Nick was sporting heavy dark sunglasses. That was Nick, the vital, shameless promoter we knew and embraced. He was a dreamer, a drill master, a hustler, a rogue, and your pal until things went awry.
He was a master motivator, a teacher of “pound-and-win” forehands and a riveting story teller. I asked the Hall of Famer to tell me about his selling flowers as a kid. He explained, “We lived in North Pelham, New York. On the corner of Sixth St. and Ninth Ave. lived the Cumberbatch family, who had the most beautiful lilacs in the world. So I picked some and went right up to the door, and asked Mrs. Cumberbatch, ‘Would you like to buy these lilacs?’ And she did.”
Once at a junior banquet in California he told the kids, “There are only two things you want to avoid in life – death and taxes.” I whispered to a friend, “Why in the world would you tell these children to avoid taxes and death?” He replied, “C’mon. That’s Nick.” When a US Open fan asked him who his favorite player was, he responded, “Nick Bollettieri, baby.”
The Bollettieri Academy emerged in 1978 as a diverse training ground and the world’s first tennis boarding school. For decades it drew tens of thousands, including a simply dazzling list of stars who we know by just one name: Agassi, Courier, Seles, Becker, Sharapova, Serena, Venus and Hingis. But don’t forget Anna Kournikova, Tommy Haas, Jimmy Arias, Mary Pierce, Martin Blackman, David Wheaton, Kei Nishikori, Marcelo Rios, Aaron Krickstein, Paul Annacone and Jelena Jankovic.
His academy was a mecca that drew aspiring juniors seeking the Holy Grail. From Siberia to Brazil, generations of wannabes flocked to the gritty, no-frills battleground that empowered ferocity. With plenty of fences and not too many books, it was a Lord of the Flies, free-form combat zone with no holds barred. Bollettieri did what no other teachers or federations really could: “We succeeded,” he explained, “because the country’s best players went to the battleground every day and beat the crap out of each other.”
Not everyone was thrilled. Mary Pierce claimed: “Nick’s version of commitment is waking up at five, running 10 miles a day, staying on court 10 hours, eating celery sticks all day and going to bed at eight. But that’s not life for anybody.”
Agassi complained it was a dungeon: “I hated it…[and] the only way I could get out was to succeed…The only thing that took away my love of the game for a few years was being at Bollettieri’s…That was way too much for any child to go through.” Nick countered, “When I had Andre for six and a half years, my main job was to keep him out of jail.”
Bollettieri was an incredible mentor, but his relationships were frequently fraught with tension and simmering disputes. Nick chose Agassi over Courier, who famously got revenge on Andre at the 1991 French Open. Bollettieri said, “Kournikova had no idols – because she was her own idol.” Then he correctly predicted his 13-year-old Russian would soon be making $15 million a year. Nick claimed he went through two wives as he trained nine-time Slam winner Monica Seles. Monica suddenly left Nick – and for years wouldn’t give him credit.
When Mary Pierce fled her father to train with Nick, Pierce’s dad was bitter. He said, “I’ll never rest until Daddy’s little girl comes home to Daddy. She’s sleek and powerful…She’s a Ferrari and I want the keys back.”
Bollettieri, who went to Spring Hill College in Alabama, said it was hard to believe how much impact he’d had on the lives of so many superstars. When Nick didn’t carefully notify Agassi that he’d no longer be coaching him, Andre later said, “Nick Bollettieri was insignificant.”
“That crushed me,” Nick told me. “How could anyone say they hated all those years? Nobody held a gun to Andre’s head. How can he say at the Wimbledon dinner, ‘There’s a man in this audience that I owe everything to.’ I accept his bitterness, but to say I was insignificant [is ridiculous]. He lived in my house, he was the same as my son, he went to No. 3, won a Slam, was a Davis Cup hero, made millions, and numerous times said, ‘Nick’s the man.’”
Jim Courier had an upbeat take on Bollettieri’s: “I was given a great opportunity by Nick that opened up the world…I was surrounded by the best players in the world. It was a real opportunity that I grabbed. It was the opposite of Andre’s experience, where he was forced to leave home.”
Bollettieri said his greatest strength was being able to read people, to make them feel very special, and to encourage them. He recalled, “In the beginning, it was, ‘Push it to the brink, God damn it, you gotta win.’ Now it’s seeing the needs of boys and girls. Pushing them to get involved in sports can be a savior.”
Nick admitted, “I never stood still for one second to listen to anybody. That’s why I probably lost my academy [to IMG]. I had success on the court, not success in management. I always said, “I didn’t want to hear about the problems. I just moved forward – I never believed it could happen to me.”
Nick confided that he was “bitter about being shortchanged by Andre and Monica…I still remember the great times and I forgive Andre and Monica. But…I never made one penny from Monica. I made 300-plus dollars for 12 years with Andre, not including the Corvette…Becker was the only person with whom I made a lot of money. I made absolutely no money from the Ariases, Couriers, Wheatons. Nothing. Unless you count publicity.”
In retrospect, Nick said he would have had far more formal contracts. He admitted he sometimes put his commitment to his players in front of his relationships with his own kids and wives. Ultimately Andre and Nick reconciled. Agassi, who spoke with Nick on Thanksgiving, once thanked Bollettieri for giving him “the space to grow and experiment…and [for] providing an umbrella of protection as I fell under the glare of the international spotlight…It was you and me against the world.”
Long an adept observer, Nick noted, “Federer moves like a whisper – and executes like a wrecking ball.”
Now, much of tennis is saying, “Thank you, Nick. You created a haven like no other. You created far more champions than any other. You loved to be bare-chested, you focused on fitness, and you were ripped until you were well into your 80s.”
Nick said his greatest asset was believing and dreaming. “I love excitement, I love being involved in controversy, where you have to produce…That action makes me what I am.” He added that he still has great relationships with many of his players, who would jump on a plane just to be with him. Of course more than anyone he loved himself. He told me, “My daddy said, ‘Son, any time they are talking about you, that ain’t too bad.’”
When I asked Nick what he would tell his younger self, he said, “I would tell young Nick, ‘As you grow up, whatever somebody says about you, say thank you. And keep on doing things that people say can’t be done…But what I want to be remembered for is giving kids an opportunity to learn.”
In the end, he told me what he really loved about tennis was “working with children and receiving letters from boys and girls who never became stars but who wrote about the discipline, values and togetherness that they learned at the academy. To think I had an impact on their lives far beyond tennis is something to cherish.”
Exactly. And in the end Agassi got it right when he wrote Nick to say, “You lived and breathed tennis, and created an unparalleled generation of champions.”