Bradenton, Florida: The first surprise upon arrival was to see Nick Bollettieri wearing a shirt.
He was long the world’s most famous tennis coach until Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker and company decided to crash the profession. And Bollettieri’s unabashed, ozone-be-damned embrace of Florida sunshine has been as much a part of his persona as his name-dropping, his born salesman’s voice and his serial approach to marriage and the development of champions.
But at age 82, with his inclusion in the International Tennis Hall of Fame confirmed last Monday, his bare-chested days on court are fewer and farther between, even if the perma-tan has endured.
“I’ve been lucky with the skin cancer, boy,” he said. “My sponsors, all they had to do before was just give me the shorts.”
Much more has changed through the decades. He now coaches much of the time on an indoor court and no longer arrives quite so early for work, although he still sees plenty of sunrises. He shouts less and cajoles more, and he also appears, though it seems rash to speak definitively, to have finally settled into an enduring marriage with Cindi, his eighth wife, and their two adopted sons — six and nine years old — from Ethiopia.
“She’s just a great mother,” Bollettieri said at IMG Academy in Bradenton. “And she did a hell of a study of where to get the children. Ethiopia came up as having kind children. Two years of research and they’re great. Hell, they’re great. One is just like me. He’s a crazy son of a gun. And the other one is calm, cool and collected.”
What has not changed is Bollettieri’s basic approach to the sport that has never made him regret quitting law school in his 20s; the sport he never played — to the consternation of some of his critics — at an elite level.
He is still passionate about it, still takes copious notes longhand as he watches pro tournaments and is still eager to spot the next bug in a junior’s stroke or spot the next champion, even if he has learned the hard way that forecasting Grand Slam results has become little more than a game of roulette.
“I think right now we have to be much more realistic about their future,” he said, gesturing toward the academy students, who were four to a court. “Today the whole world is playing tennis, and many years ago there were about six countries. Now we are competing against the world, so it’s much more difficult for me when somebody comes up and says ‘Nick, tell us about another champion’. I’m very reluctant.”
“It didn’t used to be easy, but it was easier, and I’ll tell you a funny story about Dick Vitale,” said Bollettieri, referring to the former basketball coach turned ESPN announcer. “Dick was over there by our stadium court. And I was on this court with this skinny little girl, and Dick started cursing at me: ‘What the hell are you doing with that skinny thing over there? There’s my two daughters over there, Nick’.
“And I said, ‘Dicky, that girl is going to be No.1 in the world.’ And he said, ‘Nick! Are you crazy? What’s her name?’. And I said, ‘Monica Seles’.”
Seles, born in the former Yugoslavia, did indeed rise that high and is one of several future No.1s who trained or boarded at the academy, including Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Maria Sharapova, Marcelo Rios and Serena and Venus Williams. Sharapova, who owns a house in nearby Longboat Key, still uses the academy as a base. Other active players who have trained there recently include Tommy Haas, Kei Nishikori, Sabine Lisicki, Petra Kvitova and her boyfriend Radek Stepanek.
Bollettieri said he borrowed $1 million from a friend, Louis Marx Jr., and built the academy in 1980 on what were tomato fields. But Bollettieri’s management skills did not prove equal to his motivational skills, and he sold under duress in 1987 to IMG and its founder, Mark McCormack.
Nearly 30 years later, many still refer to the facility as the Bollettieri Academy. But, while there is a large bronze statue of Bollettieri at the main entrance — in shorts and a shirt, hands on hips with socks rolled down — his surname is no longer in lights. It was dropped in 2001, and IMG Academy now caters to eight different sports, with the recent addition of track and field, and places a stronger emphasis on academics and chasing a college scholarship rather than a pro career.
The tennis program, with its 52 courts and 215 students, is still called the Bollettieri Tennis Program. Rohan Goetzke, an Australian who once coached Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek, was appointed its director in 2012. Bollettieri remains its president and founder.
Goetzke said he admires Bollettieri’s life force, motivational powers and eye for detail, while acknowledging that Bollettieri’s self-promotional bent is not to everyone’s taste.
“You can always find something is not right or not good enough,” said Goetzke, before sweeping his hand through the air to show the academy. “But this doesn’t start because you are meek and mild and don’t want to take some risks.
“I’m standing here because he had a vision and had the energy and a passion to start something, and it’s growing, and it’s taken probably a turn you wouldn’t have thought 30 years ago.”
The academy is increasingly imposing with its 450 developed acres. There are new dormitories, an on-campus school and a new football stadium with an Olympic-size track.
“I just see a lot of money, a lot of dollar bills put into this,” Sharapova said as she headed to practice in December. “I mean, when a place starts getting a tram system, you know it’s expanded.”
Whatever its public transport issues, it is a place where aspiring soccer and basketball stars rub hopes and dreams with aspiring lacrosse and tennis stars, and it is resolutely international, with its student body of more than 900 coming from 80 countries, with the biggest growth coming from Asia and South America.
In the course of just one hour on the courts in December, Bollettieri gave individual instruction to students from China, Mexico, Ecuador, Russia, Sweden, Turkey and the United States. He had already given a private lesson to a young Bulgarian at 6.30 that morning.
On court with the large group of academy students, he moved and struck quickly. “Simple messages,” he said.
Names often escaped him, but the stroke mechanics did not, and he spent a short time with each player, offering technical tweaks or pep-talk-style phrasing or condensed anecdotes or, in one case, a Frank Sinatra reference that presumably flew high and straight over the teenagers’ heads. But even with the generation gap, he still had impact, and the competitive metabolism on each court rose palpably when he arrived.
“I think this is a different generation of kids, where they do not respond as well to maybe that dictator kind of coaching figure,” said Margie Zesinger, one of the academy coaches. “What I’ve noticed over the years is Nick has responded to that a little bit better, and he talks more with the players. He communicates a lot better. Way back, the academy was more of a military type of approach, a lot of yelling.”
Access to all this comes at quite a price. Annual tuition for a high school boarding student in the tennis program is $71,400 for the 2014-15 school year, more than most elite universities charge annually.
The academy does provide financial aid based on need, although the days of Bollettieri spontaneously handing out full scholarships to supreme young talents are over. He remembers once having to choose between a young Marcelo Rios or a younger Marat Safin. Bollettieri said he gave the scholarship to Rios, although both would eventually reach No. 1.
Bollettieri still identifies young talent and was instrumental in helping Michael Mmoh, a strapping 16-year-old American who is a full-time academy student and ranked No. 9 in the International Tennis Federation’s world junior rankings.
“He’s still working so hard, and he always cares about the young players,” Mmoh said. “He was always there for me, and when I really needed some help for my game, he helped my volleys a lot and my backhand a lot.”
Bollettieri has played a lot of hands in his 60 years in tennis and had to bluff plenty in the early phase when he could not even recognise an eastern forehand grip. But the extrovert from North Pelham, New York, has learned plenty since then, and the tomato fields he once purchased to pursue his vision are very hard to picture now among the stadiums, gleaming fitness rooms, sports science laboratory and passing tram.
“You know I dream big,” Bollettieri said with a cackle. “But this is even bigger than my dreams.”