That this place existed, still exists, is considered the master method for producing professional tennis players by pundits in the tennis community is a crime. The underlying ideas behind the Bollettieri/IMG assembly-line-instruction-meets-forced-labor-camp-meets-Lord-of-the-Flies-in-Mordor approach are the reasons why tennis and the modern American way are doomed to fail -- and deserve to fail.
It is not the only way. It does not work especially well, if it can be said to work at all. For each pro with the tennis parent(s) from hell that make it far enough for the public to know about them, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of horror stories that remain unknown. Jerry Glauser says Lisa loves it, it's her choice, she can quit any time she wants, but you would have to be a fool to believe him.
COURTING FAME NICK BOLLETTIERI SAY HIS GRUELING TENNIS SCHOOL IS THE WAVE OF THE FUTURE FOR ALL SPORTS. HE MAY BE RIGHT. BUT IS IT RIGHT FOR THE KIDS?
The Miami Herald
Sunday, August 7, 1983
STEVE SONSKY, Herald Staff Writer
Imagine in the wildest Disney dreams of your childhood the perfect escape from parents and schoolhouse drudgery: They send you to a place where everyone is tanned and pretty and algebra is of little consequence so long as you can count to 40 by 10s and 15s. You do little but play outdoors all day long, and dreams of fairytale stardom and worldwide fame are encouraged and nurtured, and your only end is to become the very best person in the whole world at this game you're playing, and you have lots of friends there and they all have the same interests as you.
Join us then, at The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, Bradenton, Fla., where tennis is the game, and fame is the fantasy.
But wait. It turns out that tennis isn't merely a game. It's an industry. It's life. And near death. It hurts.
Bollettieri's workshop is a voluntary gulag on the west coast of the state, about an hour south of Tampa. The school year is nine months long, and it is dedicated to taking your child, whipping him into shape and transforming him in the process into a great tennis player, occasionally great enough to be a millionaire touring pro, always great enough to at least get a college scholarship. (Yes, the kid will go to school school too, four hours a day.)
The cost to you: $1,485 a month. Your kid's price: his freedom. No leaving the compound. No TV. No visitors in the dorm rooms. No swearing. No partying. No fooling -- rooms are searched for contraband. Drugs are contraband. So is beer. So is junk food.
Everyone wakes at 6:45, breakfasts at 7:15, is bused to one of two nearby private schools by 8, bused back at 12:30, plays tennis 'til 4:30, does calisthenics 'til 5:30, dines at 5:45, studies from 7 to 9, and snacks at 9.
Ten p.m. -- Do you know where your children are? Nicholas J. Bollettieri knows where his are. They're in bed, in the dark. They'd better be. At, oh, 10:01, comes the pounding on the door.
On weekends, things lighten up. Saturday night fever: The camp's 180 kids get a chaperoned bus ride to a local shopping mall.
This is also the place that proved too disciplined, the regimen that proved too punishing for Hu Na, the 19-year-old tennis star from China who defected to the West and ended up at Bollettieri's. It seemed the perfect place for a girl from an authoritarian society to ease into America.
It didn't work out. After a few weeks, Hu left to seek treatment for a recurring ankle injury and while she was gone Nick sent her lawyer a letter: He'd prefer she didn't come back.
She wasn't tough enough, says Nick, she wouldn't practice hard enough. "I don't know if she has any idea of the time and dedication needed to become a tennis player," he says.
"I hate it. This place stinks."
Lisa Glauser, 13, has been returning shots from the baseline for 20 minutes, and she is crying now. She is angry that she has been made to cry, and she is screwing up, hammering backhands into the net, hard.
Lisa has been at Bollettieri's for a couple of years. Recently, her game has deteriorated. This will occasionally happen to kids when they grow up. They get lazy. This cannot be tolerated.
"I hate this place." Lisa is screaming. A coach keeps whacking balls at her.
The coach: "It doesn't matter. You're staying here. Shut up and keep moving." Whack.
"I have something in my eye, Greg, and it hurts very badly."
"Let's go, Lisa." Whack.
"I...want...to...get...out of here. I don't like this...this torture."
"Go, Lisa." Whack. "Let's go, Lisa." Whack. "Keep moving, Lisa." Whack. "Run, Lisa..." Whack, whack, whack.
There have always been those such as Rod Carew of Panama, whose devotion to baseball was so great so young that he could overcome his poverty and his father's indifference by fashioning baseballs from wadded newspaper and bats from broom handles; and those such as Brazil's great Pele, who made his own soccer ball
from socks and rags and kicked it and kicked it until it was an extension of his limbs, until greatness was assured.
But these are the exceptions, those of exceptional childhoods, those individually driven toward their dreams.
Nick Bollettieri's camp for aspiring tennis superstars is something different, however. It is organized. It is the beginning of an industry.
Whether the industrialization of children's sports is a good idea or not, it is happening: at the new Olympic training center in Colorado Springs where adolescent athletes have chosen to live, apart from their families, for the lure of a dream; at the homes of gymnastics and ice skating coaches whose bedrooms have turned into dormitories for the children whose parents have
sent them there, for the lure of a dream.
And at Nick Bollettieri's; the kids are lining up to get into Nick Bollettieri's. Because it works; because it produces wonderful tennis players; and because there may be no better way, no better chance, at becoming a star.
One day, if your child harbors dreams of athletic greatness, he may have to go to a school like Nick's to see them fulfilled.
Bollettieri: "If I had to predict, I'd say, in the future, camps like mine will produce all our better athletes. And not just in tennis but in all sports -- football camps, swimming camps.... Like Lombardi, I hope in 30, 40 years, that someone says that Nick Bollettieri has contributed to tennis, to sport."
But is it good for kids?
"Yes," says Nick. "But it's not for everybody."
Then how do you tell whom it's good for, and whom it might hurt?
"One of the things that has made me successful," says Bollettieri, "is being able to tell."
So this is Nicholas J. Bollettieri, a one-time paratrooper turned tennis teacher, whose coaching insights and motivational abilities are packaged with a courtside manner that bullies malleable kids into greatness.
Enough people believe in him, want to learn from him, that business is booming. He has tennis camps too, in Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Spain, more coming soon in France and Japan.
For 20 years he'd been the personal tennis pro of the Rockefellers and tennis director of their swank Dorado Beach Hotel in Puerto Rico. But by 1977 a failed sports camp venture had left him with no job and little money until The Colony Beach and Tennis Resort near Sarasota rescued him by hiring him as its tennis director.
There, he began inviting promising teen players to live and train with him and rapidly discovered there was a market for such nose-to-the-grindstone coaching. The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy was born at the resort. Students flocked.
By 1981 Bollettieri had built and opened his own $3.5 million 22-acre complex, complete with 32 outdoor courts, clubhouse, offices, sauna, whirlpool, Nautilus equipment and rec room with eight arcade-style video games for the kids. Four new condominium-style buildings were built as dorms, if cramped ones, with eight kids to each 2-bedroom suite.
The academy now grosses nearly $2.5 million a year, including substantial money from endorsements -- a point well established coming and going: at the academy's entranceway, the sign NICK BOLLETTIERI TENNIS ACADEMY has, between the BOLLETTIERI and the TENNIS a giant Prince racquet; on the exit side, an equally large billboard says ELLESSE: THE OFFICIAL CLOTHING OF THE NBTA. There is also an official academy ball (Penn), an official car (Subaru)....
Bollettieri defends the commercialization, explaining that such sponsorships get him scholarship money for nearly two-thirds of his students -- students who couldn't otherwise afford his academy and without whom he couldn't stay open.
The academy has made Bollettieri himself a rich man. He earns about $400,000 a year in personal endorsements, owns a $1.2 million house, a $600,000 condo, and two Mercedes'.
His voice is permanently hoarse. According to legend, it is the legacy of a lifetime of yelling at people. Bollettieri says it's because of air conditioning.
He is never at ease, seems always impatient, tense, as if he were stretched taut, muscle by muscle, onto a sinewy frame. He is 52, mustachioed, 5-foot-10. He seldom sleeps more than four or five hours a night. His wife, wife number four, is stunning, as he'll warn you before you see her. She is 24. She just bore his fourth child. That's four kids, three different mothers, fractured marriages being the price, he says, of being a workaholic determined his whole life to become the very best in the world at what he does.
He may well be. His pupils are currently excelling at all levels of the game. They litter the ranks of the top collegiate players, are sprinkled among the top juniors, and are beginning to make their mark in the pros.
Brian Gottfried, his oldest disciple, with him long before the academy, has ranked as high as third in the world. Many think Jimmy Arias, 18, is the next McEnroe; he won the Italian Open and was seeded 10th at Wimbledon; Aaron Krickstein, 16, may be the best junior player in the country. At 15, Carling Bassett came within a game of beating Chris Evert Lloyd in the finals of the $250,000 WTA Championship.
Bollettieri says he started too late in life at the game, at 19, to become a pro himself. But not too late, on the courts of a North Miami Beach municipal court in the late '50s, while earning extra bucks to put himself through the University of Miami law school, to find out that he had a peculiar talent for immediately spotting what was wrong or right about everyone else's game. And, more important, the talent to motivate them to improve it, to impose discipline on them, and to make them like it.
At the academy, Bollettieri does not make clones of his charges; his staff works with the game kids come with, the game that best suits their personality; its every aspect is broken down, and analyzed.
Witness a single academy report card subject: "The forehand." Subdivided into eight categories, applicable ones checked, things like "loop too high," "laying back the wrist," "doesn't get the racquet below the ball enough on forward spin," "too loose on contact."
The students range in age from 10 to 18 or so, in size from gnat to behemoth. About 70 per cent of the students are male; 30 per cent come from foreign countries. There is a long waiting list.
This shouldn't surprise. There is now $18 million in prize money to be won on the men's professional Grand Prix circuit, up
from $300,000 in 1970. And, for the Bollettieri kid, if they don't make it all the way, there is always college tennis, being a club pro, coaching....
Not even one in 20, probably not one in 50 of the kids at the academy now will make it to the pro tour.
But there is always the chance.
Jerry Glauser, 36, on the pain his daughter is subjected to:
"Oh, I know all about it. I have no problems with it. I feel that my daughter needs it. When my child was given to Nick, I knew I had to take a step backwards. I believe in him 100 per cent."
Jerry Glauser is a Subaru dealer; academy sponsor Subaru serves up its free cars to Nick through Jerry's dealership, and Nick and Jerry have become friends. Afternoons, Jerry has entrusted his daughter, or at least her destiny, to Nick.
Because the family lives nearby, Lisa does not have to live at the academy like most of the kids.
"Look, some players go out and work and work and work on their own. Lisa needs to be pushed to play to her ability," says Jerry. "Otherwise, she just goes through the motions and she would not become what she wants to be. I think the
pressure's good for her."
Lisa is blonde, blue-eyed, pretty, engaging, and, at 13, undergoing an early entrance into womanhood with all the psychological and physical confusion that accompanies same.
"Guys are always coming up to her," says the proud dad. "Then they find out she's 13."
Bigger problem: Lisa has grown since September from 5-foot-3 to 5-foot-7 1/2. And she has gained some pounds, and some shape, to boot. Her new body has not helped her tennis game.
"She has become clumsy," is how program director and coach Greg Breunich puts it, accurately if bluntly. Breunich, who is just 25, has been with Bollettieri for 10 years, since he was not much older than Lisa, in fact.
"She hasn't yet learned how to control her body again," he says. "And she is lazy. She doesn't want to work [at tennis] as hard anymore. She doesn't realize she has three hard years of work ahead of her now if she wants to play pro."
And that's what Lisa says she wants, says dad, says Lisa. The fame, the fortune, the fun, of being a world-class touring tennis professional. She's fantasized about it since she was a baby, "forever," says Lisa, well, at least since she was 9, anyway.
"I wish I was her," says dad.
"Go, Lisa. Let's go, Lisa. Keep moving, Lisa. Run, Lisa...."
The punishment is continuing.
The other kids are eating a noon lunch of Swedish meatballs and Jell-O after a four-hour summer morning of laps, calisthenics, tennis drills, tennis matches, more calisthenics and more laps.
But Lisa is still on the court. Greg is still slapping balls at her. Lisa is still pouting. Greg is still berating.
This is called "extra help." Its intensity here is not
applied to everyone -- just to those, like Lisa, who aren't working hard enough, for whom the group drills, calisthenics, voluntarism, haven't done enough to show improvement.
Lisa has many excuses. Lisa has something in her eye. Lisa's arm hurts. Lisa has to fix her hair. Finally, Lisa turns her back on Greg. She says she has to compose herself.
"Turn around, Lisa," says Greg. The inflection is sing-song. Her name, each syllable pronounced slowly, distinctly, condescendingly, is a taunt.
"I'm tired of hearing your silly mouth. You gotta run, Lisa. Concentrate, Lisa. Keep it going, Lisa. That's more like it, Lisa. Don't make mistakes, Lisa. Concentrate, Lisa. And RUN. You run for every ball."
She is whimpering. And she is hitting every ball with all her might, overhitting because of her anger, thudding ball after ball into the net.
"Too hard, Lisa," says Greg, hitting them at her faster and faster. "What did Nick say about coming to the net? What did he say, Lisa? Keep it going, Lisa. Volley, Lisa. Keep your feet moving, Lisa. Good, Lisa. Much better, Lisa."
Whipp. Whipp. Thud. Thud. Thud.
They begin to land in the net again.
She stops and turns her back to him again.
"Turn around." he shouts. "That doesn't do anything for you."
"Yes it does. You don't know...."
"No it doesn't. And I don't want to hear your mouth. Let's go..."
"Wait, my shoelace...."
She turns her back again.
"LISA, STOP THAT. THE NEXT TIME YOU DO THAT, YOU'RE GONNA DO LAPS.. YOU'RE GONNA PLAY, AND YOU'RE GONNA KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT... YOU UNDERSTAND?"
She is crying.
"YOU UNDERSTAND? HEY, LISA."
Whipp. Whipp. Thud. Thud. Thud.
"You don't care about me...."
"I only care about your playing tennis."
"What did I say? I don't want to hear your mouth. Now listen to me. You're going to close your mouth and you're going to work hard. Your parents didn't bring you up to talk back to me."
"NO BUTS. This is a one-way conversation. Let's go."
Whipp. Whipp. Thud. Thud. Thud.
"I...want...to...get...out of here." She turns her back and sobs. Her shoulders are heaving.
"We're staying. If you'd just put together 15 minutes, we'd be out of here."
"I don't like this...this torture."
And so it goes. Finally, Lisa, her cheeks still flush red and damp, is freed to retire to the lockers.
Jerry Glauser: "You have to understand the sport she's in. If she can't handle it, she shouldn't be in it. She comes back every day, and she's fine. She loves the game.
"This is her choice. Not mine. And she loves being at the tennis academy. Oh sure, I'm sure she does it a little bit for me. But she knows at any time she can quit. If she ever came home and said, 'I quit,' I'd talk to her, make sure it's what she really wants, and if it really was, I would live with it."
Lisa Glauser: "I guess I'm here because my father believes in me. And Nick believes in me. There are so many days I go home crying, saying I want to quit -- and my father will ask why. And even if I lost 0 and 0, he's behind me. And I feel better. When I was a young girl, I believed in myself so much. But I had a bad year this year.
"I used to go home and say I had a bad day and my father would get mad and he'd make me say it was excellent. I'd have to say it was excellent. And he would be right. It was.
"Every night before I go to bed he always asks me 'Who do you love?' And I say him. And then I ask him 'Who does he love?' Me. Every night we do this. Always."
Ten minutes after Lisa Glauser went tearfully into the ladies locker room, she emerged, showered, changed, and cheerful.
She insisted that she hadn't meant what she'd said on the court. "I enjoy this place very much," she said. "I get frustrated at times, that's all."
"HE'S ALWAYS RIGHT."
Nick's Code of Behavior: Don't do anything John McEnroe does. Except win. No swearing, pouting or abusing racquets. Violators are ordered off the court. Or worse.
Once, Bollettieri spied his star pupil Jimmy Arias bang his racquet on the ground after missing a shot. Bollettieri promptly grabbed the racquet from the boy and smashed it completely, telling him if he was going to hit something, he should hit it right.
The lesson took. Sportswriters have described Arias as a "McEnroe with manners."
The word the kids use over and over again in describing Nick and the academy: "intimidating."
"But that's good," says Bobby Blair, 18, a recent graduate of the academy and once 1 in the state in his age group. "Because when you're intimidated, you listen well. You do what they tell you. But I'll tell you -- I don't do it because I'm scared. I do it because I respect him."
Lisa Glauser: "Oh sure he yells at you...but no one says as many nice things, either. Kids are so intimidated by him that when he yells, they get terrified. But that only lasts, oh, about two hours. And when he praises you -- that'll last a week."
On this morning about 40 kids are spread out among the 32 tennis courts.
As they play, Bollettieri's head swivels with each child's stroke, eyes ever vigilant for a stylistic error which, uncorrected, could hinder or destroy his chance to be the next...whomever.
"Nick's court," they call his spot, court number one, the court closest to the clubhouse, the court from which he surveys all that goes on, the court where he gives his private lessons when necessary, where he paces, where he patrols, where he strikes fear into the hearts of kids fortunate/unfortunate enough to catch his glance.
And where the telephone is. For there are the Bollettieri ears, too, equally vigilant, tuned to the loudspeaker overhead which, every few minutes, will summon him to the telephone he never wanders too far from lest its next ring bring the next big business deal.
"The academy opening in Japan," he is telling a visitor, "will be one of the most beautiful tennis academies in the world...."
Suddenly he bolts, throws open a gate that leads to some of the courts, and begins to scream -- hoarsely, of course -- at some distant player, it's not clear whom.
"IF THE BALL WAS ON THE LINE, YOU SHOULD HAVE MADE AN ATTEMPT AT IT, INSTEAD OF JUST LOOKING AT IT.."
Four courts distant, a boy freezes, stares, nods.
A tennis court is 36 feet wide. Allowing for space between courts, this shot on the line occurred maybe 200 feet, two- thirds of a football field, from where Bollettieri was standing. Later, the boy confirms: The shot was indeed on the line and he did let it go because he thought it would be out, he says sheepishly.
"He's like really amazing," says another student. "He'll be like four courts away and yell something to you like move your grip a little bit to the left, and he'll be right. He's always right."
The loudspeaker erupts: "NICK, PLEASE PICK UP THE OUTSIDE LINE...."
"I hear you," he says, shouting into the phone. "Your son is here. He's playing." He scopes the courts and fixes on a boy nearby, tanned, Mediterranean looking, volleying. "He's got good touch and moves well," Nick tells the telephone. He watches some more. "He needs to work on his backhand. And he needs strength in the upper part of his body. Greg will put him on the Nautilus this summer. But he strokes the ball very well. OK. OK. Thank you." He hangs up.
"That was Greece," he says. He motions Breunich over. "Greg," he says, pointing, "the boy from Greece...."
"Uh, that's a boy from Brazil," says Greg.
"Where's the boy from Greece?"
"Over there. The little one."
"Uh, what's the story on him?"
"He's so-so. He's only 14. He's got potential. He can be improved quite a bit...."
"I'd put him on a program to develop his upper body strength," says Bollettieri, not missing a beat. Bruenich nods in agreement. Nick's assistants always nod in agreement, and never question what Nick says. They jump when he calls, perhaps remembering their training as children. They are fiercely loyal. But behind his back they do call him "the czar." "Nick's got a lot of names," Breunich jokes.
His viewing done, Bollettieri disappears into his office in the clubhouse to make some calls. It is 9:25 a.m. He has been outside for a half hour. He'll be out for another half hour later in the day. The kids drill all day.
"He should be around a lot more," griped one boy back in his dorm room that night. "I haven't even volleyed at all with him yet. He's too busy getting his picture taken."
Bollettieri denies that the average kid at the academy is deprived of his attention. Every kid's playing style is observed by him, say his brochures, evaluated by him, and instructions for improvement implemented by him or an assistant.
"I am getting good matches every day and getting better," says the boy. "Maybe I'll get to hit with Nick tomorrow."
Unlikely. Tomorrow, Nick was leaving the Bradenton camp -- for the summer -- for the camp in Wisconsin.
"I LOST MYSELF...."
There is fallout from the academy.
"It's not for everybody" is the common refrain, a caveat Nick and staff often cite in defense of their harshness, with the accompanying assurance that kids with different temperaments are treated differently and that kids who shouldn't be there in the first place, who are pushed into it perhaps, by their parents, are weeded out and sent home.
Hy Zausner, head of the Port Washington Tennis Academy on Long Island, and a former partner of Bollettieri's in that venture: "Nick is a good coach. He knows what he's doing. But... we think there would be children too young for this. We don't think that's the way to handle children. But the parent is the one who makes the decision to send them. And some just want to live through their kids."
Ralph Campbell, Nick's business manager: "The great majority of kids respond to discipline. If you set the parameters, even though the discipline is strict and the words occasionally harsh, kids respond to it. They want to know what is expected of them. Life is easier for them when you set down guidelines. And most of the kids who come here are very mature, very self-directed, very motivated already. They want this."
Greg Breunich: "Most of the kids do want to be here. On Saturday and Sunday, when they can do what they want, you'll still find them playing tennis. We send home the ones sent here
because their parents wanted them out. You can tell them right away on the court. I've never seen it reach the point where we damaged anybody personality-wise."
There are those, though, who do buckle.
Lisa Glauser: "I know one kid whose parents make him stay who cuts his strings deliberately to avoid playing."
Hyoung Suksong, 13, from South Korea, has been at the academy 2 1/2 years. He is polite and shy and his English is still marginal and ask him how he likes it there and he says fine.
A roommate blows the whistle on him: "It's not true. He wants to go home. He tries to get kicked out in his own way. He calls the coaches ******s. And he sleeps in a lot."
Breunich: "Not Hyoung. Hyoung loves to play. He's gonna be here another three years." And Bruenich says he knows of no string-cutters.
And then there was Lori Kosten. At 12, she was ranked second in the U.S. in her age group and won the Orange Bowl competition in Miami for juniors. She won it again when she was 14. She begged her parents to send her to Bollettieri's. It was a mistake. The intensity, the single-mindedness, the competition, being grouped with many kids just as good or better than she, being away from a family that had always sheltered her, were all too much.
She grew depressed, even contemplated suicide, Lori says. "I had never really lost before," she says now from her Memphis home. "I didn't know how to handle it."
When Bollettieri realized what was happening to her, he sought to reassure her, told her not to worry, that it was OK to lose occasionally. She didn't know what to make of that. She had always wanted to be the best, had always been encouraged to be the best.
At 15, she went home, quit the game and didn't pick up a racquet for nine months.
She doesn't blame Nick, whom she still calls "the greatest coach in the world."
"But I lost myself there," she says. "I lost my identity. I lost the things I was closest to. I was very lonely. It turned me into a person I really didn't like. I didn't have an identity anymore. I couldn't get used to the restrictions."
Only now, at 18, does she feel capable of playing again. She began a little bit at a time, at first just for fun. Next year she is taking the plunge again. She is going to college at Tulane. On a tennis scholarship.
Nick bristles at accusations that he pushes kids too far. The desire to win at all costs, he says, is already within them.
"Look, it's not just me. It's the parents. It starts in the home. Let me put it this way. If you gave parents a truthful survey, and said 'do you want your kids to stop winning or do you want us to continue doing what's necessary to help them win?' -- well, with prize monies of $80,000 and $100,000 in these tournaments now, and they keep on going up, well what do you think? What do we all work for anyway? Money."