HomeSportsTennisNick Bollettieri, coach of 10 World No 1s, dies aged 91

Nick Bollettieri, coach of 10 World No 1s, dies aged 91

There’s a widely shared photo on social media of Nick Bollettieri, shirtless with those signature sunglasses covering his eyes, engaged in a chat on court with Andre Agassi, that long-haired tennis-hating youngster who was all ears in that moment staring at his racquet. There’s also a video of Bollettieri, shirtless again, yelling almost incessantly from behind the baseline as Serena Williams, those white hair beads bouncing around, oscillated from left to right during a hitting session.

That was quintessential Bollettieri, a revolutionary coach so immersed in tennis that he not only elevated the sport but transformed the way it was taught.

Bollettieri, the man who worked with 10 former world No 1 players, has died at the age of 91. Last month, his daughter put out on social media that “dad is close to transitioning to the next place”. He died on Sunday at his home in Florida.

The celebrated, charismatic and often controversial American coach has in his CV names of Boris Becker, Jim Courier, Agassi, Martina Hingis, Jelena Jankovic, Marcelo Rios, Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova and the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus. His coaching impact though was much deeper than developing champions at the top level. The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, founded in 1978, would become the blueprint for academies the world over as the first full-time, live-in centre that offered tennis coaching alongside customized academic curriculum for kids.

Inducted in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2014, Bollettieri—he described himself as the “Michelangelo of tennis”—touched lives and careers of plenty other elite players on the professional tour and, as renowned modern-day coach Patrick Mouratoglou put it, “made our industry grow” and “opened opportunities for coaches and players”.

“You were a dreamer and a doer, and a pioneer in our sport, truly one of a kind,” Tommy Haas, the former world No 2 German and among Bollettieri’s trainees, wrote on Instagram.

Born in 1931 in New York, Bollettieri’s only brush with playing the sport came during his college days in Alabama from where he earned a philosophy degree. He then served the US army as a paratrooper before signing up—and eventually dropping out—in a law school at the University of Miami. While there, Bollettieri offered half-hourly tennis lessons for $1.5 on the North Miami Beach courts. It was during one such session with a group of youngsters that he was spotted by Vince Lombardi, the legendary American football coach, who advised Bollettieri to work with kids.

His pre-academy coaching gigs, which began in the 1950s, saw him train budding American players on courts of public parks and resorts. USA’s Brian Gottfried, who reached a career-high world No 3 in 1977, was one of his first few prominent pupils.

In 1978, the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy took shape and two years later, the visionary borrowed $1 million from a friend to build the residential tennis academy in Bradenton, Florida. It would, over the years, turn into a hub of tennis talent; one that not only moulded the star-studded chain of world No. 1s but also the likes of Germany’s Sabine Lisicki, Japanese Kei Nishikori and Yuki Bhambri of India.

Bollettieri had no formal tennis coaching background or technical expertise of the game, but, as he stated in an earlier interview, “the gift God gave me was the ability to read people”. His disciplinarian coaching style became often contentious, and Agassi would later admit that he hated his time in the academy. “The only way I could get out was to succeed,” he wrote.

Bollettieri ensured a lot of those who checked into his academy did exactly that—succeed. Even after he sold the academy to IMG in 1987 while still playing an active role in the coaching scheme of things (the academy has since grown into a sprawling 600-acre space). Bollettieri trained and travelled on the tour well into his 80s, and visited India to scout kids for the academy in 2010.

“Tennis wouldn’t be where it is today without Nick’s influence,” Jimmy Arias, the current director of tennis at the academy who also trained under Bollettieri, said. “His tennis academy, which I had the privilege of growing up within, not only served as a launching pad for many tennis greats but evolved into an institution that has had a profound impact on the development of athletes across many sports at all levels.”

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