High School Sports

Bradenton's Nick Bollettieri, still building his legacy at 82, elected to Tennis Hall of Fame

BRADENTON -- 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 the announcement Monday that he had been elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, 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 - 6 and 9 years old - from Ethiopia.

"She's just a great mother," Bollettieri said in a recent interview 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 much more of a crapshoot.

"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. It says, 'Do not pass the tram.' I'm like, 'Come on. Give me a break."'

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 individualized 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 created a template with his academy, one the rest of the world continues to copy: from France to Qatar to his own neighborhood. "There are probably eight tennis academies in the Sarasota-Bradenton area, eight!" Bollettieri said.

He is no longer involved in shaping the academy's business strategy.

But if he were starting from scratch, he said he would recruit and develop American tennis champions differently. "I would do a talent search and get the big, strong athletes, 11, 12 and 13 years old," he said. "And I'd do a case study on them and go out and raise 40 to 50 million dollars and then bring them to the academy and in five years, I'll have your winners."

For now, he works with what the academy brings his way, quizzing the fitness staff on every piece of new exercise equipment in order to remain up to date. He also continues to give private lessons at $900 an hour, quite a pay raise from his initial price of $3 an hour in 1956.

"I'm going to a thousand before my career is over," Bollettieri said. But the money, though affirming, seems secondary at this stage. "You look at Carl Icahn or Warren Buffet, who live for their work, and it gets them up in the morning and keeps them young," said Courier, who won four Grand Slam singles titles during his career.

"And that is why Nick is one of the youngest, most passionate guys on the planet. No baloney. He's not doing it for money. He loves making a difference and getting meaning from it. As corny as that sounds, it's true. He has family and more wives than anyone should ever have, but Nick is someone who wakes up in the morning and craves going to the office. It's what keeps him going."

"He has young kids, and that's surely a big part of it, too, but if you remove him from the academy that would probably be the beginning of the end."

Courier once was estranged from Bollettieri, lashing out after Bollettieri chose to sit in Agassi's box when the two young rivals played in the French Open. Bollettieri often lists that decision as one of his regrets.

"That's all long gone," Courier said. "That was a naïve boy's look at basically someone who had made a business decision and a smart one to align himself more closely with Andre, who could do more for him businesswise. And I was very naïve in being bitter because Nick provided another coach from his stable to be with me full time and Nick had given me, I don't know, how many thousands of dollars in food and shelter and free coaching from the age of 14. Looking back I cringe at how I reacted, although I understand why I reacted that way."

Bollettieri cringes on occasion at his past and the melancholy paradox is that someone who has an evident gift for reading people and for communication and inspiration has so often struggled in his personal life.

London's Evening Standard once ranked him in first place in the all-time, tennis-playing marital stakes: "Two spots ahead of Henry VIII" (who played real tennis).

Bollettieri makes frequent jokes about his eight wives. "My slogan is marry them, don't date them," he said.

But behind the self-mockery is plenty of pain.

"The pain has been the children," he said as his default boisterous tone turned somber. "It's not easy for my children to answer when someone asks, 'Was your daddy really married eight times?' Not easy. Not easy."

Bollettieri, whose seven children range in age from 6 to 58, struggles to explain the scope of his marital failures, but he does understand that work - which included traveling with the likes of Agassi, Mary Pierce, Becker and Haas - was often the priority. He stops short of saying that it was too often the priority.

"I was on the road 36 weeks a years," he said. "That's a lot of time to be on the road. I actually put the academy over my children, and people say how cruel that is. I didn't put it over as more meaningful to me, but if I had stayed home, I would never have been what I am today."

He is at a stage in life when legacy is a fixation, which is why he has long worked on and obsessed over his second autobiographical book (the first, "My Aces, My Faults," was published in 1996). His colleagues and friends, who have been hearing about the new project for years without seeing results, wince when the topic is broached. But after many false starts, advance copies have been printed, and Bollettieri said it finally will be released in April.

In December, he had four full chapters printed out and placed on the metal desk he uses for an open office next to one of the indoor courts. Unsolicited, he read the first chapter, which deals with his earliest years, aloud to a visitor from start to finish: a 45-minute process.

"I want people to know what it took to do something different," he said of the book's raison d'etre.

Legacy is also why he now cares deeply about being admitted to the International Tennis Hall of Fame after rejections in 2010 and 2012.

"A lot of people have come to me when I wasn't accepted in the past, and it vanished immediately that I didn't get in," he said. "This time, after writing the book, the interviews and seeing what I've tried to do and continue to try to do, it would be a disappointment. I don't know what else I could do: inner cities, scholarships, helping people changing their lives."

The lobbying effort from the game's glitterati has been intense, with Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Agassi and Chris Evert writing letters to the election panel to support Bollettieri.

Agassi, with whom he also went through estrangement and rapprochement, is a particularly resonant figure for Bollettieri, who sees parallels with his own rocky path to maturity. Asked to say the first thing that came to mind about Agassi, he said, "Andre, should have kicked him out a thousand times."

Then Bollettieri stopped, his eyes filling with tears. For once, the coach for whom words come easily was mute. "Special," was all he could eventually muster.

As a coach, Bollettieri has been nominated in the contributor category. Though there are more than 200 players and contributors in the Hall of Fame, the only members who were best known for being coaches are Harry Hopman, the longtime Australian Davis Cup captain, and Robert Johnson, a major influence on African-American junior tennis who worked with Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe.

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 recognize 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."