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Steve Flink: Bollettieri book a clear and clean winner

4/8/2014 6:00:00 PM

After finishing Nick Bollettieri’s candid, evocative and commendable portrait of his life fittingly entitled, “Changing The Game”, I found myself reflecting fondly on a man I have known for the better part of 35 years. He does not even remotely resemble any other prominent figure I have ever met in covering tennis across the past four decades. Bollettieri is indefatigable, eternally youthful, and an optimist to his core. He chases every dream with what amounts to hard-nosed reality. He is unwavering in pursuit of his many goals, a man of staunch character, a fellow who has refused to let anyone or anything get in the way of his deep, sincere and heartfelt beliefs. He is as arresting an individual as you will ever meet. Above all else, Nick Bollettieri is one of the greatest and most enduring champions tennis has ever known, a blend of Sampras, Laver and Nadal in the coaching arena, an immense credit to his trade. Like him or not, Bollettieri has indeed altered the world of tennis sweepingly and comprehensively.

The book—written with collaborator Bob Davis—is an accurate, enlightening and fascinating reflection of the person who wrote it. If I could offer one criticism, it is this: he has a tendency to be too humble about how much he has reshaped tennis, and yet he is exceedingly kind to others, including Andre Agassi. Admirably, he does not try to sugar coat any of his own shortcomings. He examines his past dispassionately at times but, when it is appropriate, writes with considerable emotion about mistakes made, opportunities missed and triumphs celebrated. Some of the best material in the book is the section on his early years.

Bollettieri takes us through his childhood, which was colored by lifelong learning experiences, much amusement, an unquenchable thirst for sports, and an unimaginable tragedy within his family. He grew up half an hour from New York City. He writes, “Because of my diminutive size and because I was the youngest, I was allowed a little leeway growing up. No one ever told me to be quiet, and my friends will tell you I haven’t stopped talking to this day.”

Bollettieri’s father graduated from Fordham University with a degree in chemistry, opening up his own drugstore in their hometown of North Pelham, New York. But his Dad was clearly a kind and decent man who wanted to extend a helping hand to customers. He allowed the patrons to have charge accounts and went bankrupt from his losses at the pharmacy.

Nick, meanwhile, also took advantage of his father’s generous nature. As he explains in the book, “Throughout my youth I was something of a hustler. I would get candy and ice cream from my father’s drugstore and give it to my friends. Sometimes I’d sell it to them. I probably contributed to him going bankrupt…. Later on, I caddied, washed cars and worked as a lifeguard. I loved being outdoors and getting a tan… All I wanted to do was play sports. Touch football on a dead-end street, king of the mountain, ice skating on a nearby frozen lake or sledding down hilly streets—I lived for sports.”

Bollettieri became a football quarterback and was captain of his team during his senior year. In his sophomore year, he was introduced to tennis but he did not go out for the high school team, although he did play for his college team. His high school years were largely happy ones, as was the case with college—with one glaring and excruciating exception. Nick was in his sophomore year at Spring Hill College in Alabama, where he played on the team all four years in singles and doubles. He would say of that experience, “Although I had fun, I knew I had no special talent for the sport and no plans to do anything with it in the future. Wow! What a turnabout!”

But it was in the middle of his college tenure that Bollettieri suffered a loss that would scar him forever. His brother died at their home, tripping on the stairs going down to the basement, inadvertently hanging himself on the clothesline. Bollettieri returned home for the funeral, shattered in every way. After landing in New York, he went straight to the funeral home. He writes, “When I saw my brother lying in the coffin with nothing but kindness written across his innocent face, a wave of hopeless sadness washed over me, and I sobbed uncontrollably. It still happens sometimes, even today almost 65 years later.”

Bollettieri wanted to become a navy fighter pilot and took the exam for the Naval Air Corps, but did not fare well on the written part of the test. But he did go on to graduate from Jump School and earned his Paratrooper wings, becoming a second lieutenant. After graduating from college in 1953, he married for the first time in 1954 and went to the University of Miami Law School in 1956, a crucial step in his tennis evolution.  While he was in law school, Bollettieri started giving tennis lessons on some broken down courts in the area, with holes in the nets, cracks on the playing surface, and “dirt everywhere.”

Through family connections, Nick became the Head Pro at Victory Park in Miami in 1957. He would come home from law school around half past two in the afternoon and teach until 8PM or 9PM. That was labor that he loved, but he grew disillusioned with law school and quit. Meanwhile, he became very serious about teaching tennis, and he met some renowned individuals in that period.

One of them was Great Britain’s dashing Fred Perry, the Wimbledon champion of 1934-36. Perry was Director of Tennis at the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, Florida, and Bollettieri stopped by for a visit. Nick writes of Perry, “He approved of my taste in cars and we met several times after that socially, although we never talked about tennis. Fred Perry was a very flamboyant man and he always smiled when I arrived. His favorite piece of advice to me was ‘make sure you always have a good looking woman with you!’”

In that stretch, the USTA developed more of an alliance with North Miami Beach, enabling Bollettieri to start working with some leading juniors from that area. But the brightest star was undeniably one Brian Gottfried. As Bollettieri recalls in the book, “He arrived at age 11 or so with big ears and an even bigger champion’s heart.” Gottfried won the National 12-and-under title, became a good friend of Nick’s son Jimmy Boy, and Nick guided Gottfried in numerous ways to eventually become the No. 3 ranked player in the world, representing the United States in Davis Cup competition, and reaching the final of the French Open in 1977.

In any event, Bollettieri spread his wings as a teaching professional. He started spending five months or so in Springfield, Ohio coaching there, took over as the tennis director at the Sahara Beach Hotel in Miami Beach, and moved on to the Dorado Beach Resort in Puerto Rico, owned by Lawrence Rockefeller and his famous family. During his time there, Bollettieri crossed paths with many “renowned people” including future New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft and the enormously revered Vince Lombardi, the great coach of the Green Bay Packers during their exhilarating championship years in the 1960’s. Lombardi, who would become a considerable booster of Bollettieri’s tennis career, told Nick soon after they met, “Young man, you belong with children!”

Bollettieri’s world kept widening. He taught the Rockefeller family in Tarrytown, New York; left Springfield to work on the east coast and in the Midwest, opened summer camps in Wisconsin (with some help from Lombardi), and created the All American sports company. He left Dorado Beach for good in 1976, and that move set the stage for the most significant ventures of his career back in Florida. He became deeply involved with the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort on Longboat Key, and established a critical relationship with the burly and affable Mike DePalmer, Sr., who was then director of tennis at Bradenton Country Club.

In the late seventies, Bollettieri worked with some outstanding players, including Kathleen Horvath, who would become his first female player to reach the top ten in the world; in 1983, the industrious Horvath was the only player to beat Martina Navratilova all year long, toppling the world No. 1 at the French Open. His influence and stature was growing swiftly, and Bollettieri was enjoying every minute of it. And yet, he was not enlarging his reputation whimsically; Bollettieri always had far-reaching vision and his dreams were always substantial and never small.

In 1978, he opened up the DePalmer Bollettieri Tennis Club, changing tennis forever as kids came to train at the facility, devoting themselves almost entirely to tennis, living in motels nearby. One of Nick’s earliest students was none other than Paul Annacone, who achieved a career high world ranking of No. 12, and coached Pete Sampras, Tim Henman, and Roger Federer. Now, of course, Annacone works with Sloane Stephens.

Reflecting on the academy he had set up with the capable DePalmer, Bollettieri writes, “We were anything but laid-back at the new Academy. We went at breakneck pace and improvised whenever necessary. Picnic tables were set up in the driveway and the kids would eat in shifts. We didn’t have a place for them to study, so we filled in the swimming pool and built a 1,200 square foot structure above it to serve as a makeshift study hall… Academy coaches served as cooks, bus drivers, maids, and, yes, tennis coaches. We worked 365 days a year with no time off… I can’t say enough about my amazing staff from those early days. Many stayed with me for decades and worked tirelessly to help make my vision for a tennis academy become a reality. Some remain with me today!”

In those days, Bollettieri would put 20 to 40 kids on a court because the demand was there. Most of the kids stayed at the motel, but some lived with Nick in his house. One of those standouts was the remarkable Jimmy Arias, a determined player who would one day make it to the semifinals of the U.S. Open and the top five in the world. As Bollettieri writes about Arias, “Jimmy arrived at age 12, already 14 and under champion of the U.S. He was 5’2” on his toes at the time and had a slender frame, but he shocked us all by jumping off the ground, throwing his full body into his forehand and wrapping the racket head around his shoulder on his follow-through. Add to this his weird grip (strong semi-western) and you get a preview of today’s game. He was smashing the ball around the court when others were pushing it. His dad, an engineer who was also small, had taught it to Jimmy. I called my staff over and said, ‘Here’s the new Bollettieri forehand’ and invited him to join me at the junior academy, offering him a scholarship.”

Bollettieri opened up the full-fledged Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in November of 1981. As he recalls, “Many parents struggled with the idea of giving up their children to a full-time training environment. Others had difficulty with the cost, which was close to $1,500 a month. So I decided to give the best talent full scholarships, which included having the academy pay for the Bollettieri Travelling Team.”

Another esteemed student in the early eighties was Aaron Krickstein, the likeable American who attained a career high world ranking of No. 6. As Bollettieri writes of this player, “His forehand, which generated remarkable power and spin, was the precursor of all the great forehands in modern tennis—Federer, Nadal, Djokovic.”

A major feature on the Bollettieri Academy aired on the most important documentary program of them all, 60 Minutes. They portrayed Bollettieri as a “demanding taskmaster”, but he believed the show was essentially fair to him and his concept. That show went on the air January 1, 1984. Not long afterwards, Bollettieri received a phone call from Mike Agassi, the father of a future icon in the sport—the inimitable Andre Agassi, who came to the academy a few months later.

Later that year, Jim Courier—another future Hall of Famer—took up residence at the academy. Bollettieri writes, “Jim had a dogged determination to succeed. He and Andre were like oil and water. Although they roomed together for a short while, they soon became rivals on the court. Jim was precise, serious and very organized. Although he didn’t like the drills and had to be pushed to practice, he had a tremendous work ethic and usually did what we asked of him. Andre was flippant, often confrontational and harder to manage. He had a love-hate relationship with tennis, with his overly demanding father and me, but his talent and desire to succeed won out in the end.”

Bollettieri developed a strong bond with both youngsters, and recollects telling Courier, “Jim, my boy, forget about your backhand and hit all forehands.” Courier, of course, built his game around that gigantic, relatively flat, essentially full western, inside-out forehand. He did not have the natural talent of Agassi, who had a much better two-handed backhand and a first rate forehand that was nearly as big as Courier’s. But both players did Bollettieri proud, and he was immensely devoted to each of them. And yet, when they collided in the third round of the 1989 French Open, Bollettieri made an error in judgment that still makes him remorseful.

He writes poignantly in the book about what he did. “Throughout my career,” says Bollettieri, “I’ve always tried to treat my students equally and with compassion (the way I’d like to treat my own children). But in 1989, around the time Jim was leaving the academy, I made a terrible mistake. We were at the French Open and Jim met Andre in the third round. I should have picked a neutral spot and cheered on both of my students, but I sat with Phillip Agassi, Andre’s brother, and Bill Shelton, his manager. When Jim looked up and saw me, he was devastated. I could read in his eyes, ‘Why are you choosing Andre over me?’ He later said, ‘I realized Nick didn’t want me to win and it kind of hurt me.’ To this day I wonder why I chose to sit in Andre’s sitting area—when I loved both players with all of my heart. How could I be so thoughtless as to not realize that it was an act of betrayal, a tacit admission of who I was pulling for. It was like a father overtly choosing one of his kids over the other.”

It was in the 1980’s that Monica Seles took her unique brand of intensity to the Bollettieri Academy, and what an impression she made! Bollettieri writes, “Keep in mind that she had one (and only one) style of play: Stand on the baseline and go for a winner each and every time. She did not believe in rallying and keeping the ball in play. She’d aim for the corners and blast winners. That’s what made her such a formidable opponent, but an impossible practice partner. I had her hit with Agassi and [Martin] Blackman and she ran them ragged. I had her hit with three of my pros, Jose Lambert, Rene Gomez and Raul Ordonez, and she wore them out, too. I called Jim Courier over to rally with her and Jim obliged. He hit a ball to Monica and she blasted a winner. He hit another and she drilled that one, too. After she scorched the third winner, Jim yelled a few choice words and walked off the court, swearing he would never hit with her again. He didn’t. They both were fiery characters.”

Following up on Seles and her dynamic presence and singular intensity, Bollettieri writes, “Unlike any player I have coached before or since, Monica worked tirelessly from dawn until long past dusk….Our practice sessions were intense. I changed her backswing because she was using too much wrist, which could have led to tendinitis. I changed the motion and toss of her serve. I spoke in detail about every physical and mental error. But Monica never complained. She never put her head down. Her focus, persistence and determination were amazing. Sometimes the sessions stretched until 8 or 9PM, and I often missed dinner and saying goodnight to my children.”

Seles may have had her share of anxiety as a competitor, but Agassi had many battles with his inner psyche. “As gifted as Andre was,” writes Bollettieri, “he had self-doubts. This isn’t uncommon when one is competing at the highest athletic level. It is vital for parents and coaches to understand that the wrong words can destroy a youngster. Finding the positive in their performance and encouraging them is critical. The power of self-confidence is terribly underestimated! One hundred percent confidence is an essential ingredient of becoming a champion.”

But when Agassi captured his first Grand Slam singles championship at Wimbledon with a five set triumph over Goran Ivanisevic in 1992 after losing in the finals of three majors the previous two years, Bollettieri was there to share in it as an immensely prideful and overjoyed coach. He writes, “For me it was an indescribable feeling. It was my first Grand Slam victory where I sat in the coaches box for my player. And at Wimbledon, no less—the biggest tennis tournament on the planet! For a tennis coach, there is nothing more thrilling than being the mentor of a Grand Slam champion! It was one of the greatest days of my life.”

One of the saddest days for Bollettieri came in 1987, when he had to sell his academy to IMG. “We were losing money by the boatload,” he writes. “ I don’t regret my decision to give scholarships to many talented players—without that approach I never would have had the likes of Seles, Agassi, Courier and Krickstein at the Academy—but we were hemorrhaging. Too many scholarships to too many talented kids and a lack of financial oversight on my part led to the eventual downfall of the academy…. It came to the point where I had no choice but to sell the Academy or declare bankruptcy.” But Bollettieri remained the driving force and the ruler of his own tennis kingdom at the academy, even after it was later renamed IMG Academy, which added many other sports to the program. Bollettieri, however, has never lost an ounce of his authority as the guiding tennis force at the academy, with or without a new financial partner.

Perhaps the partnership Bollettieri cherished the most in all his years as a tennis front liner was the one he formed with Arthur Ashe in the eighties, as they sought to widen the base of the sport for the less privileged, putting their agile minds together to work assiduously on behalf of kids who did not have financial advantages. “I’m happy that Arthur and I established the ABC program,” he writes, “and I hope that someday, someone will decide that our answer to problems in America’s urban centers is worth reviving. Sometimes offering a helping hand can work miracles. My dear friend Arthur spent his life offering helping hands. He truly was a ‘Citizen of the World.’”

The book is filled with a wide range of recollections from Bollettieri about his extraordinary life, and those who have been at the center of it. Enter Boris Becker, who joined the Bollettieri universe in the mid-nineties after Nick’s parting of the ways with Agassi. Bollettieri had been instrumental in Agassi’s success, but now he was coaching Becker during a period of resurgence for the charismatic German. Becker, of course, had become the youngest man ever to win Wimbledon at age 17 in 1985. He defended the crown in 1986, and won the most highly coveted title in tennis for the third time in 1989. But he had fallen upon some hard times at the outset of the nineties.

Bollettieri revitalized the German in many ways. In the semifinals of the 1995 Wimbledon, Becker came from behind to oust the top seeded Agassi in four sets with Bollettieri there in the stands supporting him, achieving his first victory over the American since July of 1989. Bollettieri recalls of that golden moment that Becker told him after the big win, “Mr. B, that match was for you!” Bollettieri was tremendously gratified, but he writes, “I was torn between exhilaration and dismay.…At the time I wanted Boris to win but it was a gut-wrenching experience for me.”

Bollettieri’s pick as the most talented player he ever helped to train at the academy will be surprising to some observers but not to others. “In my opinion,” he writes, “the most talented player ever to train at the academy was Marcelo Rios. Why? First, Marcelo was a lefty. He could make the ball dance and in a split second hit a forehand winner; or jumping, with both feet off the ground, he could hit a two-handed backhand from any position on the tennis court. I’ve never experienced gifts like Marcelo possesses. But he never came close to accomplishing all that his talent allowed.”

But Bollettieri values hard work, dedication, discipline and drive as the virtues that matter more than anything else in a player. That is why he was so impressed with Maria Sharapova when they worked together. He saw Sharapova as a thorough professional who never messed with her talent and always gave the game absolutely everything she had. He writes in the book about her practice regimen, “There were no smiles or cheerleading tactics. She berated herself for missing or miss-hitting. Everything was one hundred percent business. A tornado could hit her and she wouldn’t lose focus. As a youngster Maria never practiced with her fellow students—never! In that regard she was like Monica Seles. She wouldn’t associate with peers; she wouldn’t even speak to them. She knew that one day she would have to confront them on the court and there was no benefit in developing friendships that might get in the way of the adversarial attitude she’d have to cultivate toward her opponents.”

All through the book, Bollettieri tells his story with compelling ease, with originality, with a remarkable sense of irony, wit, and, always, humor. He takes us back to 2000, when Martina Hingis trained at the academy at a time when she wanted to hear from someone else other than her sometimes overbearing mother/coach Melanie Molitor. Bollettieri reminded the Swiss teenager that her mother was the primary reason why she had celebrated so much success, but then found a way to offer his own views of what she needed at that time. Hingis went to Madison Square Garden in New York to capture the season-ending WTA Championships.

Bollettieri recounts how Hingis said the following in the awards presentation after Hingis eclipsed Monica Seles for that prestigious crown: “I want to thank the two people who helped me to be the winner today: my mother—she has given me not only the foundation of my game, but love and support every single day—and Nick Bollettieri for his inspirational message to me and for helping me to recognize who has always been on my side.”

While Bollettieri never was an “official “coach for Serena or Venus Williams, he clearly played a significant role as a trusted advisor and mentor for Serena. In the book, he mentions that Serena sent him an email recently reminding him of an instance when she walked off the practice court at the academy in either 2001 or 2002. “She was not having one of her better days. Being a perfectionist, “he writes, “She got so frustrated that she decided she was done, threw her racket down, and walked off the court. I went after her, grabbed her by the shoulders, and said, ‘Serena, what the hell do you think you are doing? You get your ass right back on this court, and you don’t leave until you get it right!’”

Williams returned to the court. As she said to Bollettieri in her email not long ago, “I never walked off a court again until I got it right. It was one of the most pivotal points of my career.”

Toward the end of Changing The Game, Bollettieri takes a long, hard, critical look at himself as a father, realizing that his career obsessions led to complications and deep wounds within the family. He writes, “I’m not sure I was always the best father to my own children. Although I have always tried to assist them whenever there was a need, there have been some very difficult times that have caused tears, anger, sorrow, and distrust. In the early days when I was developing NBTA, I would be on the road 36 weeks a year. That didn’t leave much time to devote to my children. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for then to deal with separations, new women in my life and my many marriages.”

He is currently in his eighth marriage, and Bollettieri explains unselfishly what went wrong with the seven previous unions. Bollettieri is even more willing to reveal his flaws as a father, giving all of his kids space in the book to express their sentiments. Jimmy Boy, Danielle, Angel, Nicole, Alex, Giovanni, and Giacomo all write about their Dad, and each of them have much to say that is positive. In fact, it is endearing.

Yet they freely express their misgivings as well. It speaks volumes about Bollettieri that his children were permitted to be so honest about their feelings in a public way. Perhaps the most moving of all the comments from the kids came from his daughter Angel, who did not hold back in the least. She writes, “My Dad is a great motivator—he has that special ability to make you want to do your best. Even when his voice bellows from several courts away, his energy travels. He hates confrontation. He is selfish, yet has a huge heart; obviously confident, yet secretly insecure (not so secret to those who really know him). He thrives on being in the limelight and seems oddly uncomfortable when the subject matter is not him. He loves to put smiles on people’s faces. He has a boyish silliness about him….. I have a love/hate relationship with my father, but I love him deeply and only wish him happiness.”

Before he concludes the book with his significant thoughts on the state of American tennis, Bollettieri crystallizes his view of how he has influenced the sport of tennis. “I am an innovator,” he says, “and I have always been willing to explore different roads to success. To that end I started the first live-in academy in the word. It changed the way tennis is taught at the junior level. When we got started, there were no free-standing tennis academies that housed and trained students year-round. Now they exist in every part of the world—Japan, Croatia, Spain, you name it—and other sports have modeled their training after it. More importantly, the impact on individual students has been immeasurable.”

The book authentically reflects the depth, dynamism, and scope of the ubiquitous man who wrote it. All students of the game and fans from every corner of the globe must read Changing The Game because Nick Bollettieri has irrefutably and joyously done precisely that.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.