Commentary

Bollettieri had a hand in grooming 10 players who hit No. 1

Nick Bollettieri may not be privy to the latest and greatest technology, but he put together an ecosystem of the world's most celebrated tennis players by simply assimilating players' needs and stern communication.

Updated: September 15, 2008, 5:15 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

[+] EnlargeNick Bollettieri/Yannick Noah
Joe Giblin/WireImageNick Bollettieri has tutored many players in his days, including Yannick Noah.
Nick Bollettieri, microphone in hand, is just dominating.

He's on the American Express Radio set outside Louis Armstrong Stadium breaking down the U.S. Open with announcer Tim Ryan and the Bryan brothers, Bob and Mike. Ryan and the Bryans are largely spectators.

Bollettieri is 77 years old, but he never stops moving. One minute, he's surrounded by adoring fans, another he is watching 18-year-old Japanese protégé Kei Nishikori sprinting through the men's draw. Somehow, even with all the matches he attends, the sponsors' parties and interviews, he manages to find time to write a blog for various outlets.

Yes, as always, Bollettieri's fingerprints are all over tennis.

It's a soaring, sublime day at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and Bollettieri, slight but spry and supernaturally tanned, leans into his listener's chest, emphasizes points with touches all over the place and, well, he's deep into his favorite subject -- Nick Bollettieri, of course.

"There was a marvelous online piece on me [one-hand arm tap] in the Wall Street Journal," he says. "I was just [chest poke] overwhelmed. It was just an unbelievable description [two-hand arm touch] of Nick."

This sort of third-person stuff feeds the pervasive view of Bollettieri as a shameless shill, a wizard of self-promotion. But as usual, there is substance beneath the scattershot style.

The Wall Street Journal called Bollettieri arguably "the most prolific tennis coach in the history of the game." That's not bad, but it stresses quantity over quality. The pundits might also consider calling him the most successful and broadly influential tennis coach. Ever.

"Right," said Jim Courier, one of his many students. "Anyone who doesn't think so doesn't know the game. If he doesn't get into the Hall of Fame soon, it's a joke.

"Clive Davis is to music as Nick Bollettieri is to tennis. Clive has an ear for talent -- whether it's Aretha Franklin, Steve Wonder or Mariah Carey. Nick has [made] more tennis players than anyone."

When Jelena Jankovic briefly became the world's No. 1-ranked player this summer, Bollettieri reached an almost unfathomable milestone. The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, the first tennis factory and still state-of-the-art, has now helped 10 players reach the No. 1 ranking. Courier is one of them. Moreover, three women who reached the quarterfinals at the Open -- both Williams sisters and Jankovic -- have spent time under Bollettieri.

"I'll tell you if you and I walked from one end of the [Flushing Meadows] property to the other, I'll get stuck 25 times," Bollettieri said. "That, to me, is off the wall. To have children and adults, too, stop me and say 'I was at your camp.' That to me, that's the payoff right there.

"Am I surprised about all the champions over the years? To tell you the truth I never kept track of them until I got to nine and someone told me."

Bollettieri paused.

"S---," he said, "I'm lucky."

The list of great tennis coaches -- they're essentially teachers -- is a short one. Most would include Bollettieri, along with Robert Lansdorp (Pete Sampras, Tracy Austin, Lindsay Davenport, Maria Sharapova) and Bob Brett (Boris Becker, Goran Ivanisevic).

Peter Bodo, a Tennis Magazine writer and frequent ESPN.com contributor, doesn't see Bollettieri as merely a coach, but someone who made coaching happen.

"He's used to be regarded as suspicious, you know, a former lifeguard who was just working on his tan," Bodo said. "I think the world of Nick, but so many people thought he was a huckster. He created something at that academy that created a baseline for greatness, a modern template for an approach to coaching."

A new approach

He was born in leafy Pelham, N.Y., just a short drive from the tennis center, in 1931, the same year "The Star-Spangled Banner" became the national anthem and Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion.

Bollettieri graduated from Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., with a degree in philosophy and later served in the U.S. Army, where he attained the rank of first lieutenant. After a brief stint at the University of Miami Law School, he eventually quit to become a tennis coach. His first tennis camp was at Wayland Academy in Beaver Dam, Wis., and he gradually worked his way up the food chain, and eventually became tennis director at Dorado Beach Hotel in Puerto Rico.

In 1978, on the sheer force of his personality and vision, he founded the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla. It was the first major tennis boarding school and it changed the way tennis was taught at the elite junior level.

[+] EnlargeNick Bollettieri
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesBollettieri has been a fixture at the U.S. Open for several years.
Courier was 14 years old when he arrived in Bradenton in 1984 after a scholarship offer from Bollettieri. He went from practicing against pedestrian juniors to hitting with the best juniors in the world.

"You're 15, 16 years old and you're down there with Andre Agassi, Yannick Noah and Johan Kriek," said Courier. "You're a junior, but you're training as a professional.

"It's like the Thomas Friedman book, 'The World Is Flat.' Nick flattened the tennis world in a very Darwinian way. He put together an ecosystem of the world's greatest juniors and sprinkled in some pros as well."

Seeing a template for other sports, International Management Group bought the academy from Bollettieri in 1987. Today, the campus covers a sprawling 300-plus acres and includes camps for soccer, golf, swimming -- and tennis.

Bollettieri, true to his hyperactive personality, taught an aggressive brand of tennis that was ahead of its time.

"He helped create a new-world game," Bodo said. "The big Jimmy Arias forehand, stepping into the court and taking the ball on the rise. In another generation, it would have called for an approach shot, but this was pre-empting that approach.

"He got them young and taught them how to step inside the baseline and hit that big inside-out forehand. That's the coin of the realm today in terms of success."

The first player to reach No. 1 under Bollettieri was Becker, in 1991. He was swiftly followed by Monica Seles, Courier and Agassi. Later, Martina Hingis and Marcelo Rios climbed to the top. The Williams sisters have a long-standing relationship with Bollettieri and more recently, Sharapova -- who arrived from Siberia at the age of 9 -- and Jankovic became No. 1.

The secret of his success, Bollettieri insisted, is communication.

"I believe the gift I have is the ability to relate to people in a very simple way," he said. "Listen, I'm on the [USTA] board, and they have all kinds of coaches, and they talk about kinetic change and biomechanics, and all that stuff."

Bollettieri paused and you could feel the old-school punch line coming.

"To tell you the truth," he said, laughing, "I don't know s---. I don't really know all those expressions, but what I do know is to be able to relate to people in a manner that fits into who they are. That's the biggest thing I have."

Courier puts it this way: "It's tough to encapsulate Nick. He's a great motivator. He knows how to push your buttons, to make you do what you need to do."

As much as Bollettieri is perceived as a me-first mentor, it is his ability to assimilate players' needs that seems to raise the level of their tennis.

"I believe that [coaches] sort of try to mold [players] into what you want them to be." Bollettieri explained. "It can't be that way. Make some adjustments, but you've got to work with them, their idiosyncrasies, their talent, their personality."

Part of the team
Some kids, the inevitable rebels, need a firm hand. The Williams sisters do not fall into that category.

"Venus and Serena?" Bollettieri said. "The approach -- soft. I have never heard [parents] Richard or Oracene ever raise their voice to those children.

"Someone asked Richard, who is a dear friend of mine, 'Why do you always send the girls to Nick?' And he said, 'He gets results.' I always knew my position with the Williamses. I'm just part of the team."

Bollettieri traveled with Serena for a spell in 2002 and helped her gain the No. 1 ranking. The Williamses have visited Bradenton for years and, even to this day, often prep for Grand Slams there.

Jankovic came to the academy as a 12-year-old, direct from Belgrade, Serbia.

"As a young girl, I had no idea," Jankovic said. "I was always going to school and played tennis only in the afternoons, unlike some of the other girls like Maria Sharapova and Tatiana Golovin.

"It was difficult for me to be there as a young kid. I didn't know the language. But it made me quite strong, because there was a lot of competition over there. Playing at his academy, playing with all the girls and having his help was amazing."

Jankovic played on the back courts and dreamed of moving up to the front courts. After five hours of school in the morning, she'd grab a quick lunch, change out of her school uniform and play tennis for the rest of the afternoon.

"You learn how to compete from a really early age," she said. "You're battling. It doesn't matter [if] you're playing against a skinny player, a fat player, a tall player, big, whoever. It doesn't matter even the age. You're playing against anybody, and this teaches you how to really play the game, because it's not the same just practicing.

Bollettieri Tennis Academy
Lutz Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty ImagesThe Bollettieri Tennis Academy remains a big hit with promising tennis players.
"To be a good professional, to be a competitor, you need to go out there and really battle it out over there. That's what made me."

Said Bodo, "He's one of the most underestimated influences on the game. Even a causal tennis fan, if they made a list of top-10 influences in the game, they'd have to include Nick Bollettieri."

He's still got the passion, the juice, for the sport. Ask him what he has coming up on the farm in Bradenton and he'll tell you about these three young African-American girls: Sachia Vickery, who won the Gator Bowl and Easter Bowl, then turned 13 and won three of five ITF tournaments; Victoria Duval, winner of the national 14s; and a 10-year-old phenom named Alicia Black.

There is also a new player in the stable, a 19-year-old named Donald Young.

"A couple of weeks ago," Bollettieri said, "I got on the phone and I said to him, 'Donald, you have all the shots, but you're not a man -- you're a baby. You put your head down, you feel sorry for yourself.' So I said, 'Donald, I want you to work your ass off.'"

A week before the U.S. Open began, they had a similar conversation. In his first-round match, Young very nearly beat James Blake, the world's No. 9-ranked player, in a five-set match. Despite the loss, it had all the makings of a coming-of-age match.

That same night, Bollettieri's phone rang at 2 a.m.

"He told me, 'Thanks for the conversations,'" Bollettieri said. "The kid is going to be a real player, and you could see it for the first time the other night. Donald, I'll probably continue working with because his mother says I'm the only one who can relate to him."

Courier remains a big fan. The three-time Grand Slam champion put Bollettieri in context.

"If you have a young player at the beginning, maybe you go to Rick Macci or Robert Lansdorp," Courier said. "But for a finishing school? You won't do any better than Nick.

"He created an industry. Imagine, having the talent come to you, rather than the other way around."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.