Bradenton tennis icon Nick Bollettieri to join International Tennis Hall of Fame on Saturday

jdill@bradenton.comJuly 12, 2014 

MANATEE -- It has been a long time coming, but when Nick Bollettieri is inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame on Saturday, he culminates a career that revolutionized the way the sport is taught.

The 82-year-old Bollettieri formed the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in 1981 here in Bradenton. The academy, now known as IMG Academy, became the first full-time boarding school to attract the top junior tennis players from around the world to live and play together.

Some of those junior tennis players, including 10 who attained a No. 1 world ranking, ended up becoming heavyweights at the professional level. The academy has since grown to encompass 450 acres of Manatee County real estate and houses more than 900 athletes from 80 countries.

Bollettieri was at the forefront.

Not bad for a guy criticized by Hall of Famer John McEnroe as someone who "doesn't know anything about tennis."

Bollettieri will be inducted in the contributor category as part of a five-member hall class at noon Saturday in Newport, R.I.

Lindsay Davenport (recent player category), Chantal Vandierendonck

(recent player), Jane Brown Grimes (contributor) and John Barrett (contributor) also will be inducted.

Bollettieri's upbeat, positive attitude is what separates him from others in the sport.

"He's always trying to help someone, he's always positive," IMG Academy tennis director Rohan Goetzke said Friday. "That sounds very simple, but most people don't do that very naturally."

That jovial demeanor has aided the ascendency of so many top players. The list includes Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Jim Courier, Martina Hingis, Jelena Jankovic, Marcelo Rios, Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams and Venus Williams.

"He's changed so many careers -- in life in general, but tennis in particular," doubles player Max Mirnyi said. "We couldn't be happier at IMG Academy that he's going to be put on the hall of fame board."

Mirnyi came to the academy as a 13-year-old from Belarus and has spent the past 24 years receiving guidance from Bollettieri.

Mirnyi has won 48 career doubles titles. In 2003, he achieved his highest singles ranking of No. 18 in the world.

"I learned my English here in Bradenton, and I learned my tennis education here in Bradenton," Mirnyi said. "I got to experience all the great champions. ... With Nick being a part of it, I couldn't be more grateful that's happened to me, and I'm certainly delighted that the world of international tennis is finally recognizing his achievement. Because it's been a long time coming."

Still in the game

Nick Bollettieri's ambition and passion for the game hasn't waned. He still teaches and will stroll out onto the courts to see the many juniors who take up residence at IMG Academy these days.

And he has helped rising star Kei Nishikori of Japan.

Currently the No. 11 player in the world, Nishikori elevated his game after Bollettieri's insistence on changing the 24-year-old's serve.

Before Bollettieri got involved, Nishikori had too many moving parts. The simplified approach has improved Nishikori's game to the point that he reached a career high of No. 9 in the world back in May.

"I was doing a lot of things that I don't need," Nishikori said following a practice session Friday at IMG Academy. "There was no speed in my serve. He changed it. He changed my motion. Much more simple and a better serve."

Bollettieri's beginnings in New York, to starting what is now IMG Academy and his involvement with star pupils are detailed in his 2014 biography, "Changing the Game," written with Bob Davis, CEO at Panda Foundation in Bradenton.

"Nick meant a lot to my family and me. ... His contributions as a coach and pioneer in the tennis industry are amazing," Monica Seles wrote for the book's back cover. "There is no one like him."

Even well-known sports celebrities outside of the tennis world have taken notice of Bollettieri's greatness.

"Nick Bollettieri has always been a man with great vision and a charismatic personality that energizes everyone in his presence," Lakewood Ranch resident and ABC/ESPN basketball analyst Dick Vitale said in the book. "I have watched Nick coach athletes of all abilities, from professional status such as Monica Seles, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier to junior high school beginners. His enthusiasm and ability to communicate to players of all levels is outstanding. His positive teachings, with his energetic approach, usually lead to the development of a successful tennis player."

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