Exclusive interview with Nick Bollettieri, legendary coach to Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, “The business ran out of money”
Nick Bollettieri is often credited as being the creator of modern tennis coaching and his academy certainly set a trend that many have followed. tennishead caught up with the man himself to find out how it all started
I have a confession to make. Most people probably think that the reason why I set up my academy in Florida all those years ago was the glorious weather and the year-round sunshine. They were certainly factors, but I have to tell you that I also had a selfish reason. Let me explain by telling you the story of how it all started.
For years I had been teaching tennis in places as diverse as Puerto Rico, Wisconsin, Long Island and Miami. In 1976 I took a call from a friend, Mike DePalmer, who told me there was a teaching opportunity at the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort at Longboat Key, near Sarasota on the Gulf coast of Florida.
At the time I was living in Miami, on the state’s east coast, so my assistant, Julio Moros, and I jumped into my purple Cadillac and headed across Florida via Alligator Alley. When we arrived at the Gulf Coast the sun was shining and the surf was up. Holy cow, I’ve always loved surfing. I turned to Julio and said: “Maybe we’ll take this place.”
The rest, as they say, is history. It was during my time at the Colony Beach that I started to think – between lessons and riding the surf – about setting up my own teaching establishment. The wheels were set in motion when little Carling Bassett, who was one of the kids taking lessons, came up to me and said: “I’m going home with you.” I said: “What do you mean?” She said: “My daddy wants me to stay with you.”
Carling, who went on to become the world No 8, became our first live-in student. Jimmy Arias, who became world No 5, followed her. Holy mackerel, we soon had 10 kids staying in the house!
In 1978 I bought a tennis club in West Bradenton and then a 20-room motel to accommodate our growing band of students. Finally, in 1981, a wonderful friend by the name of Louis Marx lent me a couple of million dollars to buy a plot of land in Bradenton and we built the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy there. I went after the best students both in the US and overseas and gave them all scholarships, because it was those players who attracted the paying customers.
The only trouble was that I handed out so many scholarships that the business ran out of money, so in 1987 I sold the academy to IMG, who have done a magnificent job with it ever since. I’ve always been a big dreamer, but man, what the IMG Academy is now is way beyond my wildest dreams.
The academy used to sit on 40 acres of land. Today the IMG Academy – which is where I’m still based – occupies more than 500 acres. A 150-room hotel is under construction and the next project will be to complete a third dormitory with a large pool area.
The weather is of course one of the big reasons why so many tennis establishments are based in Florida. We have sunshine through the whole year, although it can get uncomfortably hot in the summer.
Believe it or not, we do also get some rain, which was why we built the first indoor tennis centre in Florida at the academy. Having the indoor facility can also be very useful in the summer because the players can use it if the weather turns really hot. There are also swimming pools where the students can cool down and there’s always the option of going to the beach. Anyone for surfing?
I don’t recall the heat ever being a problem for any of the players I’ve worked with at the academy, although we might start work a little bit earlier in the day in the height of the summer to avoid being out on the court between 11am and 3pm.
When I think back to some of the great players I’ve worked with I don’t think any of them had a major problem with the heat. There were occasions when Andre Agassi could struggle anywhere and in any conditions, but he always got through. Jim Courier, Monica Seles, Aaron Krickstein – I don’t think any of them were ever beaten in the heat.
Part of the reason for that was no doubt because they had grown accustomed to working in heat while they were at the academy. Whether they were playing at the US Open, Miami, Indian Wells, Melbourne, Paris or Rome, they could all take those conditions in their stride.
Heat can nevertheless be a factor for some players at the upcoming BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells and Miami Open, which are always two of my favourite events of the year.
The Miami Open has moved away from Key Biscayne to a new venue at the Hard Rock Stadium. I’m pleased that it’s stayed in the Miami area. If the tournament had left Miami it would have lost a lot of its zip. The Miami people create a fantastic ambiance at the tournament.
I always like the contrast between Indian Wells and Miami. Indian Wells is spectacular and upscale, but Miami is a tournament for everyone. The Miami area has attracted a population of people from all around the world and I think that’s what makes the city and the tournament what they are.
A lot of people have to travel to get to Indian Wells, which has become a great event, whereas most of the people who come to the Miami Open live in the area. As someone who has now spent a large part of his life in Florida, I know why they love it here.
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