Nick Bollettieri likes to call himself the Michelangelo of Tennis, to impart the notion that he is an artistic genius who carefully molds youngsters into superb players. That might make for a nice image, but it's way off. To understand how Bollettieri teaches kids, it is important to know that he's a former paratrooper, and that what he turns out on the court are little troopers, once-dear children transformed into steely-eyed tennis fanatics who scowl across the net. This is called producing champions.
Bollettieri does it as well as anyone. As the director of the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy at the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort in Longboat Key, Fla., just outside Sarasota, he heads a program that in a few years may prove to be the spawning ground of the game's foremost players. Nearly 100 teen-agers from around the world are at the academy 9½ months a year, embracing a rigorous discipline, displaying an ascetic devotion. They attend local schools during the mornings, then grab a sandwich and change into tennis clothes for a long afternoon of boot camp training, in which demerits are handed out for missing a shot and resting without permission.
The academy is, in effect, a tennis factory. And Bollettieri is the foreman, a controversial figure whose bizarre training methods are well known and often discussed in living rooms across America where there is a collection of junior tennis trophies on the mantel. Last year Bollettieri's machine dominated the world's top junior and 21-and-under events, winning 17 titles. This year he wants more, and so far his plant is producing ahead of schedule.
Bollettieri is a perfectionist who denies his students the simplest pleasures. At their living quarters, lights go out at 10 p.m., and the students are not allowed to watch television on weekdays. On the court, Bollettieri gets mad if the kids twirl their rackets or if they take too long picking up practice balls. He says the easiest part of his job is on the lesson court, where if a youngster doesn't heed directives he can make the kid run on the beach and afterward deny him water. Bollettieri's hardest task: breaking the bond between child and parent.
June 8, 1980
Bollettieri calls it "getting with the program," and you are either with the program or out of it. Tuition is $1,100 monthly; there is a waiting list, and the occasional malcontents are weeded out and discarded like dead tennis balls. The students live in a former motel in nearby Bradenton that has been converted into a spartan dormitory, and every so often they are bundled off to the public library so counselors can tear apart their living quarters in search of things as innocuous as cupcakes. On weekdays, junk food is as verboten as TV watching and tearful phone calls to parents.
If this is beginning to sound like a minimum security tennis correctional camp, well, it is. One of Bollettieri's heroes is the late Vince Lombardi, who uttered the line: "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." That phrase could be the academy's motto.
Over the years, the 48-year-old Bollettieri has been a big winner, but he has been a loser, too. Four years ago he was out of work and had to borrow a car to drive from Fort Lauderdale to Sarasota to look for a job. Says Julio Moros, his chief administrator, "All we had when we started was Nick's name, and it was not a big name."
When Bollettieri became the Colony's Director of Tennis, he invited a top junior, Anne White of Charleston, W. Va., to live and train with him. Others followed and the idea mushroomed. Now among the academy's students are a fair sampling of the world's top juniors, including Kathleen Horvath, who last fall, at 14, was the youngest female ever to play in the U.S. Open; 15-year-old Jimmy Arias, the youngest player ever ranked on the ATP's computer, who's thought by some experts to be the best junior prospect in the country; and Carling Bassett, 12 years old and a millionaire's daughter, the offspring of John Bassett, the Canadian industrialist and sports entrepreneur. Because of their considerable skills, this triumvirate lives in Bollettieri's house, where he can maintain an around-the-clock vigil and foster an unrelenting commitment.
Bollettieri's students are training for only a handful of years ahead—the length of a player's career in this sport. They are there only to get better, to improve their rankings and their games. "The only reason I came down here is for tennis," says 14-year-old Chris Conk. "I don't really care about anything else, such as girls or cars or television. I have my radio and my tennis. That's enough." Conk is a typical Bollettieri student: a good player at the state level who aspires to be great. He's from Richmond, where he had a reputation as a kid who loved to practice and train. "It's perfect for me here," Conk says. "At home I complained I didn't get to play enough. Here I play as much as I want."
Between unknowns like Conk and the phenoms like Arias and Horvath, Bollettieri has some mere stars: Paul Annacone, the top 16-year-old in the East; Pam Casale, the winner of the 1980 Orange Bowl 16s; Junior Gonzales, the third-ranked 16-year-old in Puerto Rico; and Eric Korita, a massive kid—6'4", 220 pounds—from Glenview, Ill., who could turn out better than anyone. What Bollettieri does for such talented players is provide an environment, an intensity of discipline and competition, in which the best will reach their full potential; on an average weekend the academy's round-robin tournament has a better field than most junior tournaments. Last year Bollettieri's kids beat the University of Florida men's team 9-0.
And so the students' games burgeon. Horvath's serve has become a weapon; Casale's backhand is more consistent; Arias is learning how to volley. And with each bit of progress, Bollettieri's stature rises, because, as he says, "You have to have credentials." His certification is out there on the courts; his live-in program is the only one of its kind in the world, such a success that the likes of Robert Lansdorp, Tracy Austin's coach, would love to copy it. Consequently, others rush to get with the program. Bollettieri points out that Louis Marx, of the toy company family, sponsors Arias; coffee heiress Ann Folger helps sponsor Horvath; and John Bassett has bought a large school bus for student transportation. Lars Ulrich, the son of Danish professional Torben, is one of the pupils, and WCT Executive Director Mike Davies, a former tournament player himself, has a son there, too.
And Bollettieri is brusque to all of them, parents, sponsors, players. If being a good coach means being tough, then he is excellent. Once he observed Arias miss a shot and, in disgust, tap his racket on the ground. Bollettieri sprinted over, snatched the racket and yelled, "You want to bounce your racket, here, let's bounce it right." He smashed it on the ground. Arias' eyes grew wide, and he said, "That was my favorite racket."
There are no subtle messages with Bollettieri. He yells at kids, insults them. And they work harder. He grabs players and orders them off the court. And they work harder. At junior tournaments, when the Bollettieri contingent arrives, the other kids look at them as if the Marines had just landed. They are the products of a tougher sort of training. Rick Meyer, now a touring pro, recalls his first lesson from Bollettieri in 1964, years before the academy got going. "I couldn't believe how he was yelling at me," Meyer says. "He wanted me to use the Continental grip. I was eight years old. I couldn't even pronounce Continental."
Bollettieri will admit there are thousands of teaching pros all saying the same thing. The difference with him, he says, is that people listen. He discovered early he could teach tennis by demanding concentration from his students. And it works. Ninety percent of the players who have graduated from the academy have earned college scholarships. One of them is Rodney Harmon, a black from Richmond, who was ranked 48th in the U.S. 18-and-unders when he came to Bollettieri's in January 1979. Harmon had no backhand and a sickly service. In his first academy match, a girl beat him, but he got with the program and soon moved up to fourth nationally in his age group, won the national 18-and-under doubles title and earned a scholarship to Tennessee. Last week, Harmon, along with Mel Purcell, won the NCAA doubles championship. "I owe everything to Nick Bollettieri," he says.
Bollettieri was born in Pelham, N.Y., a town that is not far from New York City's borough of the Bronx. He was raised in a close Italian family that endured periodic misfortune but had a compulsion common to many European immigrants to better themselves. Both sets of grandparents were Neapolitans.
Blessed with glibness, Bollettieri, a graduate of South Alabama, anticipated a future as a lawyer, and after his 1957 release from the Army, where he served with the 187th Airborne Division, he enrolled at the University of Miami law school. He moonlighted as a tennis "pro" at a pair of public courts in North Miami Beach, where the pro shop was a dilapidated soft-drink machine with an umbrella sticking out of it, the nets were wire mesh, and the fences had holes in them. Bollettieri charged $1.50 for half-hour lessons, and you got what you paid for; his knowledge of tennis—he had played a bit as a teen-ager, but he hadn't been on his high school or college team—was so rudimentary that whenever he had a lesson scheduled, he would race off to another pro for advice on how to teach it.
Always the promoter, Bollettieri scheduled free clinics, invited the mayor to attend and then bought a shovel. A large crowd showed up, and with the mayor at his side, Bollettieri announced, "Today the mayor is going to put the first shovel in the ground for four more tennis courts." It was an election year. The mayor began digging.
Bollettieri dropped out of law school after a year and began his assault on the tennis world. Over the years he moved around like a water bug, ingratiating himself with the rich and famous, piling up successes and plunging into disasters. He was the personal pro of the Rockefellers for a spell, spending summers at their Pocantico Hills estate in Westchester County near New York and working winters at their plush Dorado Beach resort in Puerto Rico, where the affluent visitors usually ended up writing Nick's name in their address books.
It was there he met Hy Zausner, and together they founded the Port Washington (N.Y.) Tennis Academy, which in time became a hotbed of junior tennis, turning out, among others, Vitas Gerulaitis and John McEnroe. Bollettieri rounded up investors and founded All-American Sports, which operates camps for tennis and other sports. But then things soured. His personal life fell apart. He found himself running here and there. He and Zausner had an acrimonious parting. His investors fell away. He lost his job at Dorado Beach. Four years ago Bollettieri did not have a court to teach on.
And so it is no wonder he is fiercely protective of what he has, now that he has pulled himself back up in such rapid order. From his camp, clinics, equipment contracts, lessons and other operations, Bollettieri's gross income is more than a million dollars a year. His five-bedroom home, situated in a grove of trees, is an ultramodern showplace, tastefully and expensively furnished and immaculately kept by his housekeeper and Girl Friday, Kris Ross. Bollettieri also has a swimming pool, alongside which he works on his tan, a tennis court and a virtual botanical garden of landscaping. Guests, no matter what their station, must take off their shoes when they enter the house, and Bollettieri rarely eats at his exquisite glass dining-room table, catching his meals instead at a long wooden cafeteria table set up just off the kitchen. Three of his cars—a Mercedes, a Cadillac and a Mazda—have license plates that read: VOLLEY 1, VOLLEY 2 and VOLLEY 3, respectively. Bollettieri also has a station wagon and a van, but he often hitchhikes to work because he does not want to get the Colony's parking lot sand on his cars. The Mercedes is kept shrouded in a wrap, and whenever it is driven, it must be washed immediately thereafter. The tennis pros call it "the Caterpillar."
Bollettieri loves to dazzle people and is an unabashed name-dropper. To him everything can be ranked. America is the No. 1 country. He is the No. 1 teacher. You are his No. 1 friend. And he is cocky about his students. When Colony Beach guests are around, he enjoys gathering his top players for an exhibition.
Academy players are taught to be aggressive, to rip the swinging volley, to go for winners, to hit the lines, to never let up, to play the game the way their coach lives his perilous life. Bollettieri never makes a list of things to do because he does everything immediately. In mid-forkful, he will rise from dinner, walk to a picture on the wall and straighten it a quarter of an inch, all the time carrying on a conversation in his auctioneer's style. To his way of thinking, whatever he does can always be improved on. He knows, therefore, that he once dictated 57 letters in one night. He makes $50 a half-hour for teaching, and assistants bring him sandwiches on the court so he does not have to stop for lunch.
Obviously, working for Bollettieri is a perpetual crisis situation, but his 21 teaching pros are fiercely loyal, though if they want to smoke a cigarette, they have to do it behind the boss' back. He pays them well; at the academy one fellow's main job is to hand Bollettieri tennis balls, and he makes about $22,000 a year doing it.
One Saturday morning Bollettieri was on the court with a few of his stars. Horvath was preparing for a tournament and Bollettieri was feeding her balls. Arias and a boy named Mike DePalmer were on either side of him, volleying Horvath's returns. One of the shots angled off sharply, and Horvath stumbled in pursuit. "Gee, Kathleen," said Bollettieri in a loud, sarcastic voice, "I think the women should get twice as much prize money as the men. They run so well they should get more money."
Horvath's eyes narrowed. Under her breath, she muttered, "Shut up." She moved up to the net, closing the distance between the coach and her to about 15 feet. As he fed her balls, Horvath swung hard, grunting with each shot, firing the ball back at him. Arias and DePalmer were like centurions, picking off the shots protectively. Horvath swung harder.
"Gee, Kathleen," the coach mocked, "I think you're trying to hit me. See how nice we make the girls down here? See how nice the girls are here?" Some hotel guests murmured nervously on the sidelines. "She loves to hit you with the ball," Arias would say later. "That's her ultimate goal. The first day she was down here she whaled one and hit me right between the legs. I fell down. Nick was laughing. The hotel guests were laughing. She was laughing." And she didn't say sorry.
Arias, Horvath and Bassett are the camp stars, although living in Bollettieri's house is not considered soft duty. Except on weekends, they are not even allowed to listen to the radio, and he harasses them constantly, to do their studies, their calisthenics, their running. "When I first met him, I thought Nick hated my guts, the way he yelled," says Arias. "It's like being in the Army, almost. We have to salute him when he checks our rooms."
For players who live in the dorm, each weekday begins at 6 a.m. with breakfast; then they board the bus, many wearing tennis warmups and carrying rackets, and head off to two different private schools in Bradenton. They do intensive school-work during the morning; the Tennis People, their classmates call them. Around noon they return to the dorm, prepare and gulp down sandwiches and then rush to the practice courts at the Colony or a tennis club that Bollettieri co-owns.
The Colony has 21 courts and the students are spread across them. Some go through drills, some play practice matches. Many of the better ones are on court No. 1—Nick's Court, it is called, because it is where Bollettieri gives his lessons. He seems to be everywhere, yelling, beseeching, barking out orders.
At those times when Bollettieri really gets mad, he shouts and stamps his feet. "What is this?" he yells. "Show some enthusiasm. What is that? Hold it. HOLD IT! O.K., I've had enough. To the beach. Get 'em out of here. Make 'em run. They don't want to work." The kids jog away. After they return, he will not let them pause for water.
At day's end, around 5 p.m., when they have completed additional running, wind sprints and calisthenics, the haggard students file by Bollettieri and say, "Thanks, Nick."
Despite all the discipline, all the yelling, the Gestapo searches, despite everything, there is a feeling among the kids that the academy is a family, that Bollettieri, the other teachers, the players, are all in it together. Tennis parents have the reputation of being pushy, meddlesome, forceful, consumed people, not only committed but obsessed. In effect, the academy students have exchanged their parents for Bollettieri, and they don't seem to mind.
And the kids seem to thrive in this atmosphere. On rainy days, when they cannot get on the courts, they go out to the motel parking lot and volley among themselves. "They make you tough here," says Conk. "You have to want to be No. 1. I can't imagine not wanting that and doing what we do here." When Arias first left Buffalo, his mother often telephoned and asked plaintively, "Why don't you come home?" Says Arias, "I couldn't tell her I didn't want to."
For Bollettieri this was all preordained the day he first saw Brian Gottfried, then only nine years old, at those courts in North Miami Beach. The year was 1961; and he took one look at Gottfried and asked him to move into his home. For the next six summers they were inseparable. "He could make you feel like you could fly," says Brian.
Gottfried would turn out to be an extraordinary player, working his way to fourth in the world in 1977, and Bollettieri helped him get there. He dragged Gottfried around, from the Rockefeller estate, to Dorado Beach, to Port Washington, to the long line of tennis clubs at which he taught.
Even now Gottfried calls Bollettieri "the greatest teacher," and he still looks to him when his game goes awry. At times it must seem as if Bollettieri has the answers for everyone but himself, because as John Bassett puts it, "Away from the court, Nick needs all the help he can get." In 1976 Bollettieri lost $100,000 in an ill-fated tennis camp venture, a project doomed mostly by his penchant for overexpansion. And the failure of his most recent marriage, his third, wounded him grievously, though it could be directly traced to his obsession with his work. "People should know what it takes to get to be No. 1," says Bollettieri. "Hey, I envy those people who can work eight hours a day and make it. But I have to work 16 hours a day. My father once told me, 'Nick, if you would only devote 10% of your time to your marriage, you'd be Father of the Year.' "
During the afternoons Bollettieri pumps his arms up and down. "Work, work, work," he shouts at the kids. To a spectator he says, "It's like a factory. This is what it takes. From numbers come good players. From good players come great players." Every coach's legacy is his players, and Bollettieri has them. College coaches flock to the Colony to watch workouts. Equipment manufacturers beg him for affiliations. He is associated with Fila for clothes, Prince for rackets and Pro-Keds for shoes, and his kids follow the leader. The William Morris Agency lines up endorsements, speaking engagements, clinics, commercials. He has been on network television several times. He has a book coming out entitled A Winning Combination, co-authored with professional Julie Anthony. Tournament directors inquire if his students will enter their events. He gives clinics for the United States Tennis Association's junior program.
After all these years, Bollettieri has the credentials—and a big name. His grandparents were looking in the wrong place when they came to this country. It was the tennis courts, not the streets, that were covered with gold.