The Tennis Week Interview: Nick Bollettieri
The Tennis Week Interview: Nick Bollettieri
Photo By Art Seitz By Richard Pagliaro
Tennis was still in the iron age the first time Nick Bollettieri saw a tennis court. As a child growing up in Pelham, New York, the first tennis court Bollettieri ever stepped foot on was his hometown's hard court that featured an iron mesh net, wreaking rust stains on the surface of the court.
"You couldn't steal it because it was too damn heavy to carry away," Bollettieri remembers.
Times have changed and from those rusty roots Bollettieri has been instrumental in changing the way tennis is coached. The 72-year-old Bollettieri doesn't claim to be the best coach in tennis history, but he may well be the best known with a proven track record of producing champions from the Bradenton-based Bollettieri Academy that is for tennis players what NYU's film school is for aspiring directors: a desired destination for those determined to make their mark.
The man whose perpetual tan makes George Hamilton look like Caspar the Friendly Ghost in comparison sports an ever-present pair of shades that makes him look like he just stepped off the beach at Baywatch, but Bollettieri still feels most at home on the tennis court. The man who created the Bollettieri Tennis Academy has coached several Grand Slam champions including Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Jim Courier, Monica Seles and Mary Pierce and has worked with many other prominent players including Anna Kournikova, Younes El Aynaoui, Tommy Haas, Xavier Malisse, Mark Philippoussis and Max Mirnyi. In addition, Grand Slam champions Pete Sampras, Martina Hingis, Marat Safin and the Williams Sisters have all spent time training at Bollettieri's Academy.
The always colorful and occasionally controversial Bollettieri can evoke extreme reaction from observers.
"Nick Bollettieri doesn't know anything about tennis," John McEnroe once said.
"Nick's passion for the game of tennis is unparalleled," Patrick McEnroe said.
Outspoken and opinionated, Bollettieri is truly an original who still backs many of his former students while refusing to back down to his critics. Many of his players praise him as a master motivator, who helped them attain levels of play that exceeded their own expectations.
"Nick is not only a terrific coach, but a great motivator," said long-time Bollettieri student Tommy Haas, who beat second-ranked Andy Roddick in Houston on Sunday to claim his first tournament title in more than two years. "He makes you feel good on the court no matter what. He's not only a coach to me, but a good friend with a big heart."
Spend 10 minutes with him and it's clear that Bollettieri holds tennis very close to his heart.
Now in his 47th year as a professional coach, Bollettieri shows no signs of slowing down. He is up before sun rises to work out at 5 a.m. six days a week and often teaches his first lesson at 6 a.m.
Tennis Week caught up with Bollettieri today moments after he came off the court after conducting lessons for nearly four and a half hours. In conversation, the quick-witted Bollettieri is blunt. He can be both polite and pointed — sometimes in the course of the same sentence — and his enthusiasm for the game is infectious.
In 1980, the former University of Miami law school drop-out transformed a 10.5 acre tomato field into his Academy. Since then, he has developed several champions and has fostered the growth of his Academy from its modest beginning with a skeleton staff of 22 into one of the world's largest sports academies with a staff of more than 250 and more than 200 students from over 40 countries.
In this interview, Bollettieri discusses his role in creating a new competitive tennis program for the Ritz-Carlton on Grand Cayman, details how his devotion to Andre Agassi's career contributed to his divorce and what important role Agassi would play if Bollettieri could change the current power structure of professional tennis, discusses why Marcelo Rios was his biggest disappointment, how Haas has crafted his comeback, why Roger Federer's toughest opponent is himself and reveals his dream of someday returning to his New York roots to construct a branch of the Bollettieri Academy in New York to instruct inner-city kids in tennis.
Tennis Week: How did you become involved with the Ritz-Carlton tennis program on Grand Cayman?
Nick Bollettieri: Last year at the U.S. Open I went to an IMG get-together and I met Mike Ryan, who is the man who has put this all together. I met him at this evening gathering and he was telling me about his magnificent project and I said: "My God, that sounds terrific. I wouldn't mind getting involved in that." Then low and behold one thing led to another. (Former top 10 player and former Bollettieri Academy student) Jimmy Arias had gone down there and played a few exhibitions and he said: "Nick this is gonna be a great project and you'd be a great addition." And so that's how it all began."
Tennis Week: I would imagine you get a lot of offers from people who want to use your name and your experience to build a tennis program. What do you want to bring to this program to make it a unique Bollettieri experience for people who visit?
Nick Bollettieri: First of all, we don't sell the name "Bollettieri" to anybody. What we're going to do is create a unique experience. For instance, we're going to have a system that when the guests from there the courts will all be wired for videoing, so people can go right back into the video room (to see their strokes) or they can take the video home. We're also developing a unique computer system so that we know everything about the person so that when they come down to our hotel we will already know about them and then we can also send an email back to the (player's) coach and tell them what we saw in the player which can be very helpful to their coach as well. So what we're going to try to do is create a hell of a unique vacation for these people when they come down.
Tennis Week: You were one of the first prominent coaches to use video extensively. I've watched your Sonic Serve and Killer Forehand videos many times. How much have the videos helped you teach the Bollettieri techniques to recreational players?
Nick Bollettieri: Well, thank you very much for watching them. I think they are two of the biggest selling tennis videos ever so they have reached many people and hopefully they have learned from them.
Tennis Week: How involved will you be in this new program since you are still based in Bradenton, Florida with the Bollettieri Academy?
Nick Bollettieri: First of all, yes I am still based in Bradenton. I selected the tennis director and also the assistant tennis director. I'm also going to be consulting on the design of the tennis courts and I also will be helping tremendously on teaching the simple methods that we've always used everywhere. So I am going to be actively involved in working with the coach if he has any problems at all. So I will be hands on in putting our people, who we carefully selected, into the program.
Tennis Week: This is your 47th year in coaching.
Nick Bollettieri: That's right.
Tennis Week: I saw you in Miami last month at Nasdaq and you looked great. How do you keep yourself so enthusiast and so fit and so interested after all these years?
Nick Bollettieri: First of all, I work out every morning at 5 a.m. — except Sundays. I enjoy that a lot and I think that my curiosity of doing something new has never left me and I hope that it never does. The curiosity of doing new things has always been a big part of my motivation.
Tennis Week: With all of your other endeavors how much of your daily schedule is actually devoted to coaching now or are you sort of more in a management position now?
Nick Bollettieri: I'm on the court a lot. For instance, I came in at 5 a.m. today and worked out and and at 6 a.m. I was on the court and I just got off the court just five minutes ago. So I put four and a half hours in already today and I go back out on the court at 1 p.m. until 5 o'clock this afternoon, sir.
Tennis Week: One of your long-time students, Tommy Haas, just beat Andy Roddick to win the Houston title — his first tournament title in more than two years and a very big step in his comeback from shoulder surgery. What are your thoughts about Haas' comeback and his future?
Nick Bollettieri: I think what I'm gonna do with (Tennis Week publisher) Gene Scott for Tennis Week is really do a story on Tommy Haas' 14 months of coming back. It's a pretty damn unique story. And I think it will be kind of interesting for the readers to really understand what Tommy went through with his dad and mom (who suffered serious injuries in a motorcycle accident) and then the (Haas' shoulder) operation. And what had to be done and the hundreds and hundreds of hours he spent in the performance institute. So there was an awful lot of work that Tommy went through. It was kind of easy for me to help get back his strokes because that's what I do as part of his team. Red (Ayme) is the traveling coach and does a hell of a great job and I'm the guy that watches the technique all the time. So an awful lot of work went into Tommy Haas coming back to where he is today.
Tennis Week: Nick, whenever I've talked to players who have worked with you they say you're a great motivator. Since you've worked with all different player personalities — a quiet guy like Aaron Krickstein or perhaps a more flashy player like the young Andre Agassi — how do you find what motivates each individual player?
Nick Bollettieri: God blessed me with the ability to read people. At one time we had David Wheaton, whose mother blessed with ability went to No. 12 in the world. We had (Monica) Seles who would work two and three months just to master one shot. We had (Jim) Courier who would work like a work-horse on the court and at night he'd beat the drums. We had Agassi, who if I got 10 minutes a day to work with, I was lucky. So I got to know the idiosyncrasies and the personalities of the people. I think that the teaching of the game is relatively simple, but knowing the people and how they react is important. How do you interact with Krickstein? You talk to him softly. Jimmy Arias, you kick him in the ass. Carling Bassett, you kick her in the ass. Andre, you had to talk to softly. Seles, you never raised your voice to her. Courier, you can get into the pits with him. So I think it's knowing your student.
Tennis Week: Is there any player you coached who you believed would be better than what they turned out to be as a professional?
Nick Bollettieri: I believe the player who has probably disappointed me the most was Marcelo Rios. He disappointed me because God really awarded him hands and eyes and feet that were just beyond description. He never lived up to his expectations both as a role model for the game and to really fulfill the talent that he had as a player. I believe that he was probably the person. Remember Larry Stefanki did a great job with him as well?
Tennis Week: Yeah, took him to No. 1 in the world.
Nick Bollettieri: Yup. I believe that Marcelo Rios could have been a far better player then what he is.
Tennis Week: Was there any of your students who surprised you with how great he or she turned out to be as a professional?
Nick Bollettieri: Well, you know when you saw Monica Seles at 12 years old, you know I told my friends I thought Monica would be the best player in the world. But when you looked at her natural physical ability as a strong athlete able to push the weights and all that, you know she didn't have that. But what she had was hitting the ball early, great focus and determination and always competed well. And I thought she would be No. 1, but to look at her physically, then you said: "Well, you know I don't think this girl has it to make it physically." But mentally, she was just off the charts.
Tennis Week: You grew up in Pelham, New York, very close to where the Tennis Week office is now. How did growing up in New York — because you seem to have that inner toughness and self-belief many successful New York athletes have — shape your approach and philosophy toward tennis and coaching?
Nick Bollettieri: Well, I was born in North Pelham, New York and at that time there were three Pelhams: Pelham Manor, which was the rich side, Pelham Heights, which which was in the middle, and North Pelham, which was predominantly the blacks and the Italians. There were one tennis court that had an iron mesh net. You know, you couldn't steal it because it was too damn heavy to carry away. And we didn't play any tennis. I didn't know my ass from my elbow when it came to tennis back then. You know, I played football and was a fairly good athlete. We just loved the sports that had physical contact and playing marbles and sleigh riding and doing things like that, but none of us knew much about tennis. I went to Memorial High School in Pelham.
Tennis Week: There have been rumors in New York that you've considered starting a branch of the Bollettieri Academy here in Mount Vernon, New York, where a lot of gifted athletes — basketball players Ray Williams, Gus Williams, Rodney McCray, Scooter McCray and UConn's Ben Gordon — grew up. Are those rumors true? Would you consider coming back to New York?
Nick Bollettieri: We were working very closely with Mount Vernon mayor Mayor Ernie Davis at Mount Vernon's Memorial Field and he wanted to — there's still great talk about it — of turning Memorial Field into really like a Bollettieri Center. It would help a lot of inner-city children. Since I grew up there, for a project like that, I am very interested so that we can give back to the youth of America.
Tennis Week: The fact there are so many parkways right there — the Hutch for example — makes it easily accessible for a lot of kids.
Nick Bollettieri: Right. It's right off the Hutchinson Parkway there and we're still very much talking to Mayor Davis as well as NYTennis.net — that's the company that would manage it. If not, you know I may try to somehow get into Westchester County in the future and somehow try to help the kids in the area where I grew up.
Tennis Week: I sometimes go back and watch that '92 Wimbledon final when Agassi beat Goran to take his first Grand Slam title. You look so genuinely happy at that moment. Was that your proudest professional moment when Andre won Wimbledon in '92?
Nick Bollettieri: No question because we didn't even think we were going to go there. We should have lost in the first round to (Andrei) Chesnokov (Agassi beat Chesnokov 5-7, 6-1, 7-5, 7-5 in their only meeting). Andre didn't hit a lick before he went to Wimbledon. We got there then all of a sudden he wins the damn tournament.
Tennis Week: Do you see Andre playing another year or two? Or given the fact he hasn't won a title in a year if he didn't win one this year do you think this could be it for him? He still seems to give so much.
Nick Bollettieri: You know and I know that Andre is such a role model that as long as Andre thinks he can keep on winning, then Andre will continue playing. I think what happens today, to win a Grand Slam today, you have to get some free points from your serve. And if you don't get some free points against Federer and guys like that, then it's awful tough to win a Grand Slam no matter how dedicated and how physically fit Andre Agassi is. He wins most of these matches because of his return of serve and because of his physical fitness. And of course, he knows how to win. But when you get to these young, top guys, who perhaps win a lot of free points off their serve and you're giving up 10 to 12 years, then it makes it a little tough for Andre. But nobody competes better and if anybody can do it at 34 years old it would be Agassi.
Tennis Week: Do you see anyone out there now who can challenge Federer long-term for No. 1? Or do you think Federer will reign at No. 1 for as long as he wants to be there?
Nick Bollettieri: I believe that Federer can reign a long time. The problem with being No. 1 is that you can't slip up for a minute just like he slipped up at Nasdaq. He was fortunate to get through the first round before losing to Nadal at Nasdaq. But when you're No. 1 and you have to stay there for 100 weeks or 200 weeks that means you have to compete against yourself like Pete Sampras did. And only a few people can compete against themselves each and every day to remain No. 1. No one knows (if Federer can do that), but the thing about Federer is that there's a lot of other damn good tennis players out there as well. I mean, the men's tour is very, very deep. So the pressure on Federer is he can't let up for one second. Now, the ladies tour now that's become a little weak again. Remember, last year, the year before, you had 10, 12, 15, 20 ladies (who were competitive). But right now, you've got 40, 50, 60, 70 and 80 men who can be competitive. So by God, to be No. 1 you gotta bust your ass every single day. So you can't let up for one second. That's the penalty of being the best in the world. I think Andre said it well about Federer. He said: "The guy does everything well." He glides well, he moves well, he serves well. You know he just has no weakness and he's beginning to volley more. But the big problem you have of being No. 1 is you can't let up for one second because every player out there wants to say: "I beat the No. 1 man in the world." It's like Tommy Haas this weekend beating Roddick. You know, you get extra adrenaline when you play the best guy! You know Tiger Woods made everybody play the best golf. So he created Mickelson to be the best No. 2 in the world. Look what Venus and Serena did. They forced Justine Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters to go to the damn gym to get better, right?
Tennis Week: Right.
Nick Bollettieri: They forced them to go the damn gym, man! Why? Because they couldn't compete with Venus and Serena (until they got better). So what Federer's got to do? He's got to work longer, he's got to work harder and he can't break his focus for one single second.
Tennis Week: If Serena Williams stays healthy, would you agree that she is potentially the greatest woman player in history?
Nick Bollettieri: I believe if Serena Williams wants to be the best ever and set all sorts of records, she can do it. But she's gotta stay healthy, man. She has got to stay healthy. You gotta remember that she's pounded the ground since she's been six or seven. While most girls only go for 70 or 75 percent of the balls, their daddy made Venus and Serena go for every ball whether it's a hundred feet out or not. That pounding on the body will take a toll. And then the other thing we must understand is: what is the primary concern of Venus and Serena? But if they are healthy, I don't see how you can beat 'em. I really don't. Day in and day out a healthy Venus and a healthy Serena, it's tough to beat both those girls. Shit, I mean that's not easy to do.
Tennis Week: One of the criticisms of you as a coach is people say: "Well, he's great at developing aggressive baseliners like Arias, Agassi, Courier, Seles, but he doesn't develop the volleyers." I know you've worked with players who can volley — Paul Annacone, Boris Becker, David Wheaton, Tommy Haas, Max Mirnyi — but in your own words how do you respond to your critics?
Nick Bollettieri: We've had all those guys you just named. I mean, Paul Annacone: he couldn't hit shit from the baseline. That guy tried to hit a forehand, he'd chop it. So you know what: I love for my critics to say that because that makes me look good. Because they're talking about me.
Tennis Week: You were one of the coaches who helped revolutionize coaching and how champions are developed in this country with the creation of your academy. What impact do you think your approach has had on professional tennis?
Nick Bollettieri: Well first of all, my Jimmy Arias when he was 12 turning 13, he changed the forehands of the world. I mean Jimmy Arias, he hit the ball by jumping up in the air off both feet, wrapped the racquet clean around his head and came out on the other side. Everybody said: "No, keep your feet on the ground." Shit, he was like a grasshopper. And then you get the Agassi's and the Courier's and the Seles' in the '80s and people were saying: "What the hell is Nick doing teaching swinging volleys?" Now the swinging volleys become the biggest shot in the game and you thought I was an ass hole! (laughs).
Tennis Week: I hear you.
Nick Bollettieri: So again, you know you can't look back. But it's sort of fun having people call you an ass hole and then you have 32 players in the main draw at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open so you can't be too big of an ass hole. (laughs).
Tennis Week: You mention the swing volley, we've also seen some of your players employ that leaping two-handed backhand that's become popular on the men's tour. How do the ideas come for these sort of new shots and what do you see evolving as the next big stylistic change in tennis?
Nick Bollettieri: We do a lot of video-taping here and that helps. So when you come in for an approach forehand or backhand a little stutter-stepping is very important rather than coming to a stop or taking an extra recovery step. So I mean, that's been a big transition. Because if you take a stutter-step then your motion and momentum continues rather than starting from a stand-still. I believe, if you look at the game now, you only really have one true young serve-and-volleyer basically and that's Taylor Dent. If you look at Roddick playing Haas the other day they were eight feet behind the baseline. If you look at Nasdaq, Andre lost to Calleri because Calleri was smack on the baseline and that caught Andre flat-footed. But basically speaking, right now, the game is not necessarily played right on that baseline. It's a combination of playing three to four feet behind it then getting right back on the hot seat, moving back for some balls, then getting back up toward it again. But the game today is not totally inside the baseline hitting every ball up on the rise.
Tennis Week: I don't want to sound like I'm picking on any tennis association or federation, but how have you been able to develop so many champions whereas the USTA or LTA, perhaps with greater resources, have not been able to consistently do it?
Nick Bollettieri: I don't think the USTA should be in the business of developing champions. Or the USPTA or the PTR. Those three organizations should be fostering the play — getting people to play, encouraging enthusiasm, backing up the municipality programs, getting college teams to go on a tour in the summer and paying for that. Getting the best high school players into it. But I don't think they should be in the business of producing champions or great players that should not be their main (objective). What we've done is we were able to concentrate on it because we built the best facility in the world with IMG. And as Jim Courier says: "When you have a lot of good players staying at the same place, a lot of great players come from it." We have one of the best high performance center and we're just building a new 20,000 square foot performance center — all air-conditioned inside. Our mental approach to the game is unique. So we do it for a business, but we stay with the kids and develop them or work with the coaches. And I think if the USTA does want to develop champions, then they have to work with the coach that's dedicated many years of their life to developing that player.
Tennis Week: If you could make any one change to tennis right now what would it be?
Nick Bollettieri: Right now, I'd make Andre Agassi the commissioner of tennis. I believe there's too much bullshit going on. You got too many organizations telling you what to do. There should be one organization that says: "This is the way the ball game is and this is the way it's going to be." Right now, there are too many factors.
Tennis Week: One last Andre-related question. One of my favorite Nick Bollettieri stories is when you were traveling a lot with Andre early in his career and your wife at the time supposedly said to you: "Nick, you've got to choose: it's either me or Andre." You chose Andre. Is that a true story?
Nick Bollettieri: That is absolutely the truth.
Tennis Week: Wow. That's dedication.
Nick Bollettieri: I was that attached to Andre and if I had given up on Andre I probably never would have made it anyway because, you know, tennis is my life. That's a tough ultimatum, but she was probably right on asking that because I was spending a lot of time (with Andre). But tennis has been my life.
Tennis Week: Last question: is there any project or issue we haven't discussed today that you want to talk about or that you believe is important for readers to know?
Nick Bollettieri: I hope that you'll say that the biggest concern I have today — and I hope you'll let your readers know — that in the next 12 months I'm going to make a major, major push to help boys and girls get into physical activity to fight obesity. You will see Bollettieri heavily involved, in 12 months, with this project.
Tennis Week: You mean on a national level?
Nick Bollettieri: On a national level I'm going to get into this hook, line and sinker.
Tennis Week: I know you're busy and need to get back out on court. I really appreciate your time. It's always fun to talk to you. You never lose your enthusiasm for the game. I admire you for that.
Nick Bollettieri: Listen, thanks for taking the time to interview me and thanks to the Tennis Week readers for reading.