Nick Bollettieri’s life story would make a remarkable film script, but there has always been one major problem: would anyone believe it? The legendary tennis coach, who has died at 91, led an extraordinary life, during which he transformed the world of coaching and guided the careers of many of the game’s greatest players. Chris Evert described him on as “the greatest coach ever”.
Tennis academies, where live-in students are educated and learn the game at the same time, did not exist until Bollettieri founded his in Florida. A larger-than-life character who married eight times, Bollettieri worked with 10 players who became world No 1s, including Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Jim Courier, Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova. The driving force behind the modern power game, he developed new strokes and set standards for professionalism and dedication.
Bollettieri, whose grandparents emigrated to the United States from Naples, was born in a village 30 minutes outside New York City in 1931. As a boy he loved sport, though when an uncle first asked him to play tennis, Bollettieri replied: “Are you kidding! Tennis is a sissy sport!” He tried it, nevertheless, and liked it, though by his own admission he had no great talent.
After military service, Bollettieri enrolled at law school in 1956. To make ends meet he started coaching tennis on public courts in North Miami Beach. He sent his first wife, Phyllis, on spying missions to pick up tips by watching other coaches.
Bollettieri also sought advice from Fred Perry, who was director of tennis at a local hotel. Perry, the last Briton to win the Wimbledon men’s singles title in 1936 until Andy Murray’s 2013 triumph, soon struck up a friendship with Bollettieri. Perry told Bollettieri one day how much he enjoyed seeing him drive past.
Bollettieri agreed that his yellow-green convertible was indeed a thing of beauty, but Perry replied: “I don’t look at the car, Nick. It’s just that there’s usually a beautiful woman in the passenger seat.”
Leaving law school after a year, Bollettieri threw himself into tennis coaching. While running summer camps he developed the idea of establishing a tennis academy, where students would immerse themselves in the sport.
In 1978, by which time he had made a name as a highly innovative coach, Bollettieri bought a tennis club in Bradenton, Florida, and a motel where his students could live. With the help of a benefactor, he then purchased a nearby 12-acre site on which he built the Nick Bollettieri Academy, which opened in 1981.
The academy established a reputation as a boot camp, where students were pushed hard. Bollettieri himself had a great work ethic: for decades he would get up at 5am and be on court coaching by 6am. Spending so many hours in the Florida sun, it was no wonder that his wraparound sunglasses and leather-like skin became his trademarks.
It was the arrival of Agassi and Courier in the mid-1980s that helped turn Bollettieri into the world’s most celebrated coach.
Agassi always had a love-hate relationship with tennis. He was a difficult teenager with a mind of his own, but Bollettieri knew how to handle him. After Agassi was thrashed by Henri Leconte on his Wimbledon debut in 1987 he refused to go back there for the next three years.
In 1992, however, he shocked everyone by winning Wimbledon, despite having had only half an hour’s practice (on a hard court) before arriving at the All England Club. Bollettieri always described Agassi’s Wimbledon win as the greatest moment of his coaching career. The two men eventually fell out but became reconciled later in life, with Agassi saying that Bollettieri was a father figure to him.
Courier was at the academy for four years and was followed by the likes of Marcelo Rios, Tommy Haas and, later in his career, Becker. Other Bollettieri students like Brad Gilbert and Paul Annacone became acclaimed coaches.
Many of the women coached by Bollettieri were huge ball strikers. Seles was three years younger than Courier, who walked off court in frustration after she struck a succession of winners past him in their first hitting session. Sharapova spent her early years at the academy, while Bollettieri was one of the few coaches to whom Richard Williams would entrust the care of his daughters, Venus and Serena.
Bollettieri could never resist taking on new talent and it was his habit of awarding so many full scholarships that contributed to some financial difficulties. In 1987 he had to sell the academy to IMG, though he continued to work there. Today the academy stands in more than 600 acres and is home to 1,300 students who play eight different sports.
Bollettieri is credited with “inventing” two of the game’s most devastating modern strokes, though the whipped forehand that has become standard today – a shot struck with great power after a big back swing – was already being used by Jimmy Arias before the he joined the academy. The stroke soon became a staple of the Bollettieri coaching programme, as did the drive (or swing) volley.
From the early 2000s Bollettieri became a fixture in the daily Wimbledon coverage in The Independent and, later, i. Before play began at the All England Club he would often be on court at a private location giving lessons to rich individuals and their offspring, for which he would charge large fees. He often joked that he needed the money in order to keep up with his alimony payments.
He was soon in big demand from other publications and broadcasters, who loved his gravelly voice and his way with words. Most of his columns in i featured at least one trademark “holy mackerel!”
Working with Bollettieri was certainly an eye-opener into his extraordinary popularity. It was impossible to walk more than five yards around the All England Club without someone stopping to shake his hand.
One of Bollettieri’s proudest days came when he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame eight years ago.
“I forged my own path, which others found to be unorthodox and downright crazy,” Bollettieri said in his speech there. “Yes, I am crazy, but it takes crazy people to do things that other people say cannot be done.”