Nick Bollettieri: excerpt from Tough Draw by Eliot Berry

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Nick Bollettieri interview excerpt from Tough Draw by Eliot Berry, 1992, Henry Holt, NY
Out of print, but still obtainable used from Amazon.com via the link above.

    Tough Draw describes players and events on the WTA & ATP tours from the 1990 Lipton International (the Miami-Key Biscayne tourney that later became the Ericsson and is now the NASDAQ-100 Open) to the 1991 US Open. Author Eliot Berry is a novelist, English instructor, sports writer, and tennis player who was successful in New York juniors in the '60s. He has since written a second tennis book, Topspin, which relates events on the pro tours from the 1993 US Open to the ATP Legg Mason tourney in Washington D.C. in the summer of 1995. Berry's easygoing approach makes both books pleasant reading, and although there are no photos, the books are well indexed.

    In addition to the Nick Bollettieri interview excerpted below, Tough Draw includes the story of John McEnroe's defaulting at the Australian Open as told by Gerry Armstrong, the chair umpire who defaulted him, the story of Jennifer Capriati's 1st year on the WTA tour at age 14, and the tale of Martina Navratilova's 9th Wimbledon singles title, defeating Zina Garrison in the final 6-4, 6-1.

    The book focuses more on offcourt conversations than on detailed match descriptions, but when matches are described it is in terms of success, not failure, which makes for more interesting reading.

Nick Bollettieri makes a point to
9-year-old Anna Kournikova in 1990
  click to see larger photo
Nick Bollettieri at the 1990 Lipton International (pages 63-67)

    Nick Bollettieri, Andre Agassi's five-foot six-inch coach, had been alone and looked unhappy the day before Andre Agassi's final-round match with Stefan Edberg. Bollettieri, whom I remembered much more than he remembered me (from junior tennis), was standing in the concession village in green fluorescent sunglasses with both arms wrapped in a hug around two rackets. Nobody seemed to notice him. That was like not noticing Don King when Mike Tyson was fighting. Bollettieri smiled as I came up to ask him for an interview, but he had no clue as to who I was until I told him.
    "I remember that match," he insisted when I reminded him of the 6-4, 10-8 scores in my losing match in the semifinals of the Easterns at Forest Hills with a fourteen-year-old Brian Gottfried. In 1965, I had won the New York State singles and doubles, the New York State Jaycees, and was ranked third in the east in the sixteens. I was quick and strong for my age, but when I lost to the fourteen-year-old prodigy, I knew that I was going to college, not Wimbledon, where Gottfried eventually reached the semis. "You got us at a very bad moment," remembered Bollettieri. "We were afraid Brian had a heart murmur. We spent the morning of your match taking Brian around to heart specialists in Forest Hills."
    I laughed. "Shall we do the interview right here?" I asked.
    "No, let's do it over here," said Bollettieri, taking me around to the gazebos that held the draw sheets.

    Nick Bollettieri had a round, leathery tanned face and a Cheshire cat's smile. Still clutching Andre Agassi's two rackets that needed stringing, he pushed his fluorescent green Ray-Bans back on his nose and leaned against a Florida palm tree for support. Fifty-two years old, wearing ankle-high Nike sneakers and no socks, black tennis shorts, and a white cotton V-neck T-shirt, Nick Bollettieri was brown as a berry and still liked to coach in just his tennis shorts with his shirt off. Bollettieri had been in the tennis business for thirty years, many of them ankle deep in soft green Florida entoutcas clay hot sun. The son of an Italian immigrant, an ex-Marine who became disenchanted with things during a year at a Miami law school, Bollettieri's tennis camps had become a lucrative business, but only after many years of struggle and perseverance.
    The tennis academy began housing students with his pros, grew into a motel, and now that an education deal had been worked out with St. Stephen's School in Bradenton, boasted seventy-five tennis courts, a famous staff sports psychologist (Jim Loehr), dozens of teaching pros, and videotape and ball-boy machines galore. There were now 350 tennis camps in America alone. Harry Hopman's widow and Rick Macci ran two of the major rival camps, but Nick Bollettieri had more top-name players, starting with Brian Gottfried.
    Up close, Nick Bollettieri's hair was jet-black, a tribute to his good Italian genes or Grecian Formula. His face was lined from the sun to a slightly ape-like crease of a smile. He had the irrepressive aura of a fifteen-year-old self-promoter. As an instructor of junior players, Bollettieri was accused of producing topspin clones. Yet he had produced several champions, and he was very clear to say publicly that players like Andre Agassi and Jennifer Capriati were "one in fifty-thousand." I came to like Bollettieri. It was the parents, said Bollettieri, who stocked his tennis camps with "future champions." It was the parents who were the dream machines.
    In fifteen years of operation, 45,000 students had attended his tennis academy, 30,000 children between the ages of six and sixteen and another 15,000 adults. Now 5,000 tennis players a year passed through Bollettieri camps across the country. His best advertising was the players he produced.

    "You've had so many people play for you," I began. "Monica Seles, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Pete Sampras, and David Wheaton. What have you done to put together a program that got so many of the top men and women players following what you're saying? You've practically had everybody."
    "Well, not everybody," said Bollettieri, smiling as he titled his head. "But we certainly have had a lot. We've been very fortunate."
    "You've had more of the top players in the game than any other coach in the world."
    "Well," said Bollettieri, "what I've tried to do is set up a system."

    "What exactly is the Bollettieri system?" It sounded dangerously like a diet.
    "Working with a person's style," Bollettieri shot back. "Working with their mind, their physical make-up, how they feel about life. We're not trying to make major changes in their games."
    "So what do you do? Do you get them physically stronger?"
    "Right. Everything. It depends what area is needed. You see," said Bollettieri, "everybody is an individual. And I think that next Friday--a week from next Friday--is going to be quite interesting. On that date, Agassi-Bollettieri release their worldwide video, Attack."
    "Attack?"
    "Right. Attack is going to be one of the most interesting videos ever done in this country. And what we are trying to do, the concept," explained Agassi's mentor and substitute father away from home, "is to try to say to a person who is starting to play tennis, "Well, all right. Listen, you're not too fast on your feet. Ah, you're forty-five years old. Ah. This is what we think you should be doing instead of trying to make major changes. Because at your age, it's too late for major changes...'
    "So what we are trying to do at the academy is to develop a special system within a person's individual make-up. Of course, if I work with a youngster that I take from the very beginning, then he or she has to be taught the total game."
    "The 'total game.' Does that necessarily involve a lot more topspin?"
    "Well, the grips are different."
    "The grips are different, and the rackets are different. Is that why you tend to teach the topspin style?"
    "But I don't teach that style per se. Attack is tailored to the individual."
    "So you aren't pushing the industrial-strength topspin?"
    "That's right! Because--" Bollettieri's New York accent emphasized the cause in because.
    "Because you want to go through the ball more, don't you?"
    "Well, that just depends," said Agassi's coach. "If you put too much topspin on the ball, they can run it down. But if you're building up a point, perhaps a little more spin might be the thing. When you have the opening, you also have to learn how to drive the ball through it. I think the game is going to be more than just groundies. I think the game is going to hitting the ball on the rise."
    "Like Andre does."
    "Right. Andre's way ahead of everybody in that department."
    The idea of taking the ball on the rise was not new--every champion from Tilden to Connors did it, but the title of the new video, Attack, was definitely catchy. "Agassi takes the ball so early, doesn't he?"
    "Right," said Bollettieri. "And Monica Seles. And Jim Courier."
    "What about Pete Sampras?"
    "Ah. It was too bad Andre got sick there in Philadelphia. He was playing Pete and had to default. It was a shame," said Bollettieri, who coached both Sampras and Agassi, "because Philadelphia should have been Andre's tournament. Andre ate some bad Chinese food the night before he played Pete. But that should have been Andre's tournament."

    "But Sampras did win it. What does Sampras have to do now?"
    "I think Pete has to look a little more to the off-court activities the way Andre has. The physical training. Last week in Palm Springs, Pete lost in the third set, and some people said he gave up, that he 'didn't want to pay the price.' Well, it's not fair of people to say that about Pete, because he's still young. He's got plenty of time. Give him two years."
    Nick Bollettieri was an American original. He looked tired, like he had eaten one too many late meals with teenagers at Arby's. He had a wife and a son who wanted to become a photographer, not a tennis pro. Like Don King, Bollettieri managed more than one fighter at once, but he was not malign. Even the young kids who worked for Bollettieri did not consider him to be a great businessman. Bollettieri did not even have a contract with the Seles family, just a verbal understanding, and they walked out on him after four years of accommodations and tennis lessons...
    "Well," said Nick Bollettieri, eyeing the tape machine between us, "don't forget Attack. This home video is going to have a dramatic impact on the way tennis is taught in the next twenty years. Attack! And if you'd like a prediction, Andre is going to beat Stefan Edberg tomorrow."

Agassi did defeat Edberg in the 1990 Lipton final.
Dissenting opinion: topspin aficionado Bjorn Borg speaks against hitting the ball on the rise

Bollettieri Academy website - interactive satellite photo of Bradenton centered on the Bollettieri Academy
Florida Trend March, 2007, autobiographical article by Nick Bollettieri


Find more books by or about Nick Bollettieri at Amazon.com - Find more books by Eliot Berry at Amazon.com



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