Nicholas James Bollettieri, considered the great goldsmith of American tennis stars and trainer of numerous figures, died Monday at the age of 91 at his Florida residence, his family announced in a statement. Recognized and praised, the trainer will go down in history for having given flight at his Bradenton academy [Florida] to figures as distinguished as Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, Boris Becker, Jim Courier, Maria Sharapova or the Williams sisters, as well as another bunch of professionals who at one time or another left their mark on the tracks; case of Marcelo Ríos, Mary Pierce or Anna Kournikova, among others. Iconic, unique –copper brown, large gold rings, almost always behind sunglasses– and supporter of a strict method that catapulted to the top to at least ten number one numbers, Bollettieri transcended not only as a prestigious coach, but also as a business model.
Born in 1931 in Pelham (New York) and the son of Italian immigrants, he began playing tennis at university and after his time in the army – a lieutenant in the 187th Infantry Regiment – and working as a teacher in a resort from Puerto Rico, he invested the million dollars that a friend lent him to build his academy. Their empire. A seedbed with a pseudo-military profile that he built in 1978 on a 40-hectare field, initially intended for the cultivation of tomatoes. Where others imagined vegetables, he perceived an inexhaustible plantation of dollars. “I just did it. Most people think too much, but I’m not ashamed to say I’m nervous. It’s like the first time I jumped [desde un avión]: He was wearing diapers!”, he commented a few years ago in an interview with the ATP, the body that runs the men’s circuit.
Bollettieri boasted of not having excessive technical knowledge, but simple intuition. He claimed to be based on observation and the discipline of his method, under a regime of extreme competition. He created champions, and at the same time robots. In the words of the famous Agassi, his center ended up becoming “a kind of lord of the fliesbut with drives”. “A glorified prison camp,” he describes in his biography, open. Unyielding, old Nick squeezed the product until there was not a single drop of juice left, or he would get rid of him or her when it was no longer useful. “People said: hold the racket like this, move your hands and form a V with your thumb and the other finger, throw it back and move it like this… And I thought, I can do that too”, he argued, that to the will of Being the best coach and scout in the world added (or put) a second purpose: “To be rich.”
It began to bill thanks to Kathleen Horvath, a promising teenager who, at just 14 years and five days old, already played in the US Open, the most important tournament in the country. Since then, 1979, there has been no one so young to participate. But it lasted a breath. What Bollettieri took to realize that she was not going to be the best. Consequently, out. It’s that simple, that raw. Glory (and dollars) or nothing. His law. “It’s about hitting hundreds of balls for four or five hours a day, paying the price for being a winner. Success does not come by chance, it is related to blood, sweat, tears, frustration and the determination to achieve it”, he maintained. “The training I had in the military made me like this. It is essential to respect a leader and follow without discussion the path that marks you. The secret of my center has been to bring together special people; one pushed the other to try to be better, they became champions for that. That is the concept, ”he wielded.
Countless talents have paraded through Bradenton in the last 30 years, but only a select group managed to get past the filter. There were more or less docile ones, but their predilection and great commitment was always Agassi. The American’s father, a tyrant, discovered while watching television that the Bollitieri academy – today the IMG Academy, an acronym for the largest sports representation company in the country – could be the ideal place for young Andre to fulfill the dream of the; The parent’s, of course, not the boy’s. And everything fell into place. The preparer was enthusiastic about the fatherly message; to the father the cuartelario exposition of the trainer; and Agassi, poor him, had no choice but to start fighting with him Dragon imaginary that portrays in open. Hell. In 1992 she won his first major, at Wimbledon, and the phenomenon broke out: rebellion, tobacco, wig, scarf, jeans. The extravagance to soften an unbearable day to day.
“Everyone is different. My gift is knowing how each person is, knowing how to treat them and how to talk to them. And Andre”, Bollittieri recounted a few years ago, “you could never scold him because he didn’t react well. Courier, yes, and with Becker and the Williams sisters, things were very simple. Many things have been said about his father [Richard, obsesionado con que sus hijas alcanzasen el estrellato], about the pressure it put on them when they were kids… But that’s bullshit, isn’t it. I know what the truth is. I traveled with them. He never treated them badly. All he did was tell them to play without limits and without fear. Agassi? He was just the best. I was crazy too; if he hadn’t been, I would have sent him home quickly. My grandmother did the same to me. He was a rebel, yes, but committed, not like Ríos [el incontrolable chileno zurdo que ascendió al trono mundial en 1998]; this one did not have feeling with anyone, he did not respect the people who helped him, nor the rivals, nor the game. He could have been the best, but he blew the opportunity. He was the most talented player I ever had.”
The Mecca of youth tennis
Starting in the nineties, Bradenton became the great international showcase, a Mecca for formative tennis through which everything out of the ordinary had to pass. There, Bollettieri produced not only champions, but also “children prepared to face the dangers of life.” The result of some of the experiments was excellent, but others did not work. For example, the bond with the Seles family was stormy. “By far the most demanding I have ever worked with. I gave it my all, but they always asked for more, ”he lamented. After that failed connection – as soon as she left, the tennis player began to … – a platinum-haired girl who “had everything” landed at the facilities, but also a defect. “Anna’s reverse [Kournikova] it was superior, as was his volley, but he had no forehand. Her mother did not let me change it, and if a mother does not want… ”, she argued. Even so, the Russian –individual disappointment, notable doubles player– redimensioned in commercial terms the Bollettieri brand.
Almost immediately, the academic laboratory came up with the perfect evolution, the ideal formula: aesthetics, media power and results. Maria Sharapova. An author’s work. Under the recommendation of the legendary Martina Navratilova, she and her parents played a card. “With 700 dollars rolled up in my pocket”, they arrived at the center and the teenager, 9 years old at the time, received a scholarship. “She was antisocial, she only thought about work,” the technician describes her. “She was there for a reason, she had a mission: to beat all the others,” reasons the tennis player, so closely linked to Bollettieri that she ended up settling next to the academy when she had already succeeded as a professional. In a meeting with EL PAÍS in 2016, the guru drew a comparison between Masha and Garbiñe Muguruza, represented by IMG and who has occasionally worked in Brandenton. “It reminds me of Maria, she doesn’t warn: one, two, three… and the other, without realizing it, bang! She’s already on the ground,” she X-rayed.
On him, turn another product typically American, a lot of literature and even movies have been made. The documentary love means zero (2017, Jason Kohn) was awarded at the Montreal Festival. “I was the first to do it, to train children, to change the concept. I went in the opposite direction to everyone else ”, he proudly points out. “He was like a father and we fought for his love,” he says on the Courier tape. “It’s not just a coach [entrenador] of tennis, but of life”, emphasizes Becker, whom he led from the bench between 1993 and 1995, after splitting pears with Agassi. The latter portrays and makes the hair stand on end: “The constant pressure, the wild competitiveness, the total lack of supervision by adults slowly turns us into animals. Over there [en Bradenton] a kind of law of the jungle prevails”.
In 2014, the Tennis Hall of Fame inscribed the name of Bollettieri, married eight times and who began teaching classes for $4 an hour; the fee amounted to almost 1,000. Despite selling the academy to the International Management Group (IMG) in 1987, he continued to preside over it, and following this all-consuming line, the company extended the model to other sports (basketball, golf, tennis, baseball…) to take over the market. In recent years he has been seen from time to time for a tournament, although for the past three years his health has deteriorated significantly. Even so, until very late he maintained the routine of waking up at 5.30 and starting the day with physical exercise. “Contrary to what you have heard, I am alive and kicking”, he transmitted through his social networks on November 20, to deny the rumors of his death. He says goodbye now, and resounds: “In life, if you don’t do anything wrong, you don’t get to the top of the mountain.” From start to finish, tough old Nick.
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