Death of tennis coach Bollettieri: tough teacher for the big ones

Back then, in the 1980s and 1990s, anyone who often walked past one of the many Nick Bollettieri tennis academies that also sprung up in Germany in the wake of the Boris Becker boom was astonished: boys were banging on the ball, turned around Baseball cap, mirrored sunglasses, the tanned trainers next to them mostly with the same unofficial dress code.

It looked like vacation, but it wasn’t: Talents were also being drilled in Bühl in Baden, the students played, lived, ate on the premises, they were barracked like Bollettieri himself was when he was in the US Army, where he made it to the rank of first lieutenant in the air force. Very few made the big breakthrough.

Born in 1931 in Pelham, New York, across the street from the Bronx, Bollettieri was a football quarterback in high school and, after dropping out of law school in Miami, came to teach himself tennis, which he had previously had little to do with. In his academy in Bradenton, Florida, whose offshoots were later found all over the world, the small, wiry son of Italian immigrants bred thousands upon thousands of players, including tennis elite: Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, Maria Sharapova, Jim Courier, the Williams sisters and many others received power tennis lessons from Bollettieri. Boris Becker, Sabine Lisicki and Tommy Haas were also among his protégés.

Bollettieri once described his camp as the “toughest playground in the world”

Parents and children alike flocked to the massive academy campus south of Tampa Bay, which Bollettieri himself described as “the world’s toughest playground.” And they paid a high price: a year at the academy cost the youngsters $30,000. In return, the talents received all-round support, which was also based on Bollettieri’s gift of having an excellent eye for the talent of upcoming players. And that too: the charismatic Bollettieri filled rooms when he entered them.

He knew about his attraction, Bollettieri once described himself as the “Michelangelo of tennis”, Boris Becker called him “a genius”. He was a master of self-marketing anyway. Critics like Martina Navratilova also accused Bollettieri of driving children to burnout with his drill. John McEnroe even called him a “charlatan” who had no idea about tennis.

And Andre Agassi settled accounts in his biography with his former coach, with whom he had a kind of father-son relationship until the break. The academy was a “better prison camp”. Perhaps Bollettieri, who first triggered the boom in tennis academies, was only inducted into the sport’s “Hall of Fame” in 2014 because of this ambivalence.

In recent years, Bollettieri, the avid early riser who always followed through with his fitness regimen, has increasingly taken care of his family. He no longer lived only on the pitch, but more in seclusion with his eighth wife. If he didn’t travel, in the sense of tennis. Tommy Haas, who once hit his first balls as a teenager in Florida, wrote about his former coach on Instagram: “You were a dreamer and a doer and a pioneer in our sport, really unique.” Bollettieri, 91, died on Sunday.

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