Tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, who made champion after champion in Florida, dies at 91

Tennis coach Nick Bollettieri played only one year of collegiate tennis at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. He was never an elite tennis player, according to the International Tennis Hall of Fame that inducted him anyway.

So what’s Bollettieri doing in the Tennis Hall of Fame?

Bollettieri — who died at age 91 Sunday night at his Bradenton home — knew tennis. And he knew how to get the best out of future Hall of Fame inductees including Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Jim Courier and Boris Becker.

“Now I know how it feels to reach the top of Mount Everest. May I say, the view from up here is amazing,” Bollettieri said at the top of his acceptance speech into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 2014.

“The first few steps of climbing that mountain began when I was in law school at the University of Miami and began teaching on two little tennis courts in a little town called North Miami Beach, name of the park was Victory Park. I didn’t know much about teaching the game. So my son and his mother would look around and say, ‘This is how you hold a racket’ and I began to know how to talk about tennis a little bit,” Bollettieri said.

READ MORE: Famed coach Nick Bollettieri left lasting imprint on tennis and all youth sports

From Sharapova to ... Metallica?

The names of other players Bollettieri helped at different parts of their careers could also read like a formidable Hall of Fame ballot: Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Anna Kournikova, Tommy Haas. His teachings helped produce 10 No. 1-rated players.

Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich, the Danish son and grandson of tennis players, was one of Bollettieri’s students. Though Ulrich traded his tennis racket for making a bigger racket with heavy metal music for the last 40 years, he likely absorbed some of the gumption that his disciplinarian childhood coach brought to the court. After all, Bollettieri idolized and embodied football coach Vince Lombardi’s “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” strategy.

“If it comes down to queuing up in a line for winning or not winning, I know which line I’ll queue up in,” Ulrich told the Miami Herald in 1992.

Once, when retired tennis champ Jimmy Arias was a teenager at Bollettieri’s tennis academy in Bradenton, the student reportedly lost his cool after missing a shot and tapped his racket on the ground. Sports Illustrated recounted the story in a 1980 profile on the coach and his academy. “Bollettieri sprinted over, snatched the racket and yelled, ‘You want to bounce your racket, here, let’s bounce it right.’ He smashed it on the ground. Arias’ eyes grew wide, and he said, ‘That was my favorite racket. ’”

‘Future of American tennis’

Famed tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, left, greets tennis players and brothers Christian, center, and Ryan Harrison after the two practiced on March 23, 2015, for the Miami Open in Key Biscayne, Florida. Carl Juste/Miami Herald file
Famed tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, left, greets tennis players and brothers Christian, center, and Ryan Harrison after the two practiced on March 23, 2015, for the Miami Open in Key Biscayne, Florida. Carl Juste/Miami Herald file

“I want to help the future of American tennis,” Bollettieri told a Miami Herald sports writer in 2008 as he worked with Miramar’s Sachia Vickery and Bradenton’s Victoria Duval at his Bradenton academy when they were 12. Both would come to rank in the Top 100 in their sport in the next decade.

“It’s important to find youngsters like Vicki and Sachia, girls who have so many fantastic qualities, such talent, and really, really love the sport,” Bollettieri said at the time.

“No one has done more to shape the modern game of tennis than Nick Bollettieri. His track record of developing Hall of Fame talent and nurturing countless young people speaks for itself,” James Champion, chairman of the Greater Miami Tennis and Education Foundation, told the Miami Herald in 2011. Bollettieri was in town as a guest speaker at a dinner and auction during the Sony Ericsson Open when the championships were held on Key Biscayne.

https://youtu.be/hOrUIoSpQVE

Bollettieri’s Academy

On Florida’s west coast, south of Tampa, tennis in Bradenton underwent a seismic shift when Bollettieri created the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in 1978, initially on the grounds of his home. In 1980, Bollettieri reportedly borrowed $1 million from a friend, Louis Marx Jr., to build a spacious live-in tennis academy on what were tomato fields near Bayshore Gardens in Bradenton.

The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy was the home to countless top players that trained under his tutelage, including Serena and Venus Williams, Carling Bassett, Martina Hingis and Thomas Enqvist.

Soon, the perpetually suntanned and bare-chested telegenic coach in his wrap-around Oakley sunglasses — a look that screamed Sunshine State to northerners watching an ABC “20/20” segment on the commanding Bollettieri’s uncharacteristic methods — was a national figure, almost as famous and recognizable as some of his players.

CBS’ venerable “60 Minutes,” along with ABC’s “Nightline,” the BBC and writers from Sports Illustrated and People magazine descended on Bradenton to cover the coach “who shined brightest when the camera lights were on,” opined the Tennis Hall of Fame.

Bollettieri’s coaching style was no cushy E-ticket ride to Disney. Bollettieri’s academy was likened by some to a boot camp. The title of a Sports Illustrated profile on Bollettieri and his academy in its June 9, 1980, issue? “He’ll Make Your Child A Champ, But It Won’t Be Much Fun.”

Bollettieri sold the academy to International Management Group, IMG, and its founder Mark McCormack in 1987, but continued to develop the 400-acre academy and work with young players.

“Tennis wouldn’t be where it is today without Nick’s influence,” Jimmy Arias, now IMG Academy director of tennis and one of Bollettieri’s original students, said in a statement after learning of his death. “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.”

Molding talent

Tennis coach Nick Bollettieri talks to inner city tennis kids in the leadership excellence Training Program on Dec. 11, 1997. The group visited him at a Bloomingdales department store. Al Diaz/Miami Herald file
Tennis coach Nick Bollettieri talks to inner city tennis kids in the leadership excellence Training Program on Dec. 11, 1997. The group visited him at a Bloomingdales department store. Al Diaz/Miami Herald file

In the last decade, Bollettieri worked to bring tennis to inner-city children.

“In the late 1980s I am sitting on a bench at the French Open and this man says, ‘Nick, what are we going to do about the thousands of boys and girls that will never get a chance to hit a ball or play sports?’ That man was Arthur Ashe, my friend. I started the Ashe-Bollettieri program with Bob Davis being the director in Newark, New Jersey, and we ran that program for 13 years,” Bollettieri told the Herald in 2021.

After Bollettieri was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame he became the first white man to be inducted into the Black Tennis Hall of Fame a year later in 2015, the Bradenton Herald reported.

“That one means a lot to me,” he told the newspaper in 2021. Bollettieri was inducted into the Black Tennis Hall of Fame “for his legendary commitment to growing tennis in urban and Black communities in the United States,” the organization said.

In total, Bollettieri was inducted into 13 tennis halls of fame.

Hall of Fame broadcaster Dick Vitale, a longtime Lakewood Ranch resident, tweeted on Nov. 24 about Bollettieri.

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“My Thanksgiving was made as I learned that my buddy @NickBollettieri tennis guru who needs all our [prayers], was moved to tears as he had a warm caring phone call from one of his all time fave talents Andre Agassi today,” Vitale’s official account posted.

Bollettieri and Agassi

Along the way, as with any player-coach pairing, conflicts emerge. Bollettieri and his star pupil, Agassi, initially fell out in 1993 when Bollettieri informed Agassi, then 23, he would no longer provide him services. He did so by a letter rather than in person.

“To help him get back to where he used to be, which was No. 3 in the world, there would have to be close contact. But he’s based in Vegas, I’m at the academy in Bradenton and there’s a space between us. Whether he’ll ever reach his greatest potential, no one knows,” Bollettieri said at the time, the Miami Herald reported.

The split was the focus of a 2018 sports documentary, “Love Means Zero,” by filmmaker Jason Kohn, for Showtime that focused on the fractured father-and-son-like relationship Bolletteiri and Agassi had once shared.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vz5xyeSFODE

“Nick is self-mythologizing,” Kohn told Insider in 2018, but said he found an approach with the coach that got Bollettieri to reveal deeper, sometimes emotional details. The director was able to get Bollettieri to read a passage from Agassi’s autobiography, “Open,” in which the tennis star wrote an emotional letter aimed at his former coach. “It shows a rare vulnerable side of Bollettieri leading to him finally saying how he feels about his protégé: that he still cares deeply for Agassi,” according to Insider.

“I don’t know if I ever stood still for long enough in my life to look back and think about what I achieved with my players. It was always a case of win one tournament, go to the next. There was no time to reflect. That is not how I work, but Andre Agassi winning Wimbledon was pretty special,” Bollettieri told Tennis 365 in 2021.

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Background

Born July 31, 1931, in Pelham, New York, to Italian immigrants, Nick Bollettieri didn’t gravitate toward tennis right away.

He was a high school football quarterback at Pelham Memorial High and also lettered in basketball. According to the Tennis Hall of Fame, “Bollettieri dabbled in many things in life.” He was a paratrooper in the military as a member of the Army 187th Airborne Division in 1957 and studied law at the University of Miami. For five months.

To earn some money as a student, Bollettieri started teaching tennis on North Miami Beach courts. He charged $1.50 for a half-hour lesson. He got better. He would soon command $6 an hour, the hall of fame wrote in his induction bio. His first star student was Brian Gottfried, who ranked No. 3 in the world in 1977.

After opening his academy, he could charge $900 for an hour’s instruction in tennis. But in America’s Bicentennial year, 1976, Bollettieri was broke and had to borrow a car to drive from Fort Lauderdale to Sarasota to look for a job before founding his academy.

“What I hope I will be remembered for is daring to follow my passion and hopefully igniting that spark of passion in others,” Bollettieri said in his Tennis Hall of Fame acceptance speech. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Survivors and tributes

Bollettieri’s survivors include his wife of 18 years, Cindi, children James Thomas Bollettieri, Danielle Bollettieri, Angelique Bollettierri, Nicole Bollettieri Kroenig, Alexandra Bollettieri, Giovanni Bolletterri and Giacomo Bollettieri; grandchildren Willa Bay Breunich, Addison Skye Breunich, Hudson Kroenig and Jameson Kroenig

A celebration of life is scheduled for March 18 at IMG Academy, 5650 Bollettieri Blvd. in Bradenton.

Instead of flowers or other tributes, the family has requested donations to the Bolliettieri Family Foundation, a charitable organization set up to continue Nick and Cindi’s desire to assist youth to achieve their full potential.

“What I hope I will be remembered for is daring to follow my passion and hopefully igniting that spark of passion in others,” Nick Bollettieri said in his Tennis Hall of Fame acceptance speech. Provided by IMG Academy/IMG
“What I hope I will be remembered for is daring to follow my passion and hopefully igniting that spark of passion in others,” Nick Bollettieri said in his Tennis Hall of Fame acceptance speech. Provided by IMG Academy/IMG
Nick Bollettieri was inducted into 13 tennis halls of fame. Provided, IMG Academy/IMG
Nick Bollettieri was inducted into 13 tennis halls of fame. Provided, IMG Academy/IMG
Nick Bollettieri founded the training ground of champions in 1978, now called IMG Academy. Bollettieri died at 91 years old. Provided by IMG/IMG
Nick Bollettieri founded the training ground of champions in 1978, now called IMG Academy. Bollettieri died at 91 years old. Provided by IMG/IMG