SARASOTA — He coached some of tennis’ biggest stars, making him famous outside the sport as well. Indeed, Nick Bollettieri, who died Sunday at age 91 at his Bradenton home, was as consequential as the players he mentored.
The founder in 1977 of the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, the forerunner to the IMG Acspandemy, the native of Pelham, New York, coached the likes of Andre Agassi, the Williams sisters, and Maria Sharapova with a demanding style that fostered success.
Even late in his life, Bollettieri continued working with students and interacting with the IMG staff.
“With the same passion and enthusiasm as he did in his 20s,” Tim Pernetti, president of IMG Academy Bradenton, said in a statement.
“Anyone who knew Nick knows how much he loved developing the potential in young people, coaching tennis and this Academy. Our heart goes out to his wife, Cindi, and his children. He has made a permanent and lasting impact on all of us.”
Bollettieri was honored to have been inducted into 13 Hall of Fames. Especially meaningful was his induction in 2014 to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. A year later, he became the first white man to be inducted into the Black Tennis Hall of Fame.
Bollettieri lettered in both varsity basketball and football at Pelham Memorial High School, where he graduated in 1949. He attended Springhill College in Mobile, Alabama, serving in its ROTC program. Upon graduation, he served in the Army as a 1st Lieutenant and a paratrooper in the 187th Airborne Division in Fort Campbell, making more than 50 jumps.
While attending the University of Miami Law School, and needing some extra money, Bollettieri decided he would learn how to teach tennis. His influential uncle, Kenny DeFillipo, found him a job at Victory Park giving tennis lessons.
He learned how to coach, in part, by sending his first wife to watch other pros and report back to him. His first “pro shop” was a table wedged between two Pepsi machines, and his teaching fee was $3 per hour. Years later, it rose to $900 per hour. As Bollettieri said, “Gunfighters don’t charge by the bullet.”
He went on to coach tens of thousands of players for almost 70 years. But it was Bollettieri’s friend and confidant, Hall of Fame NFL coach Vince Lombardi, who first recognized his special talent for inspiring and motivating children and helped him get his first summer camp in Beaver Dam, Wis. After the success of this camp, Bollettieri’s friend, former Marquette basketball coach Al McGuire, and AC Neilsen, helped Nick start All American Sports and develop other summer camps for kids.
In 1977, Bollettieri moved to the Sarasota area to take over the tennis program at the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort, owned by Dr. Murray “Murf” Klauber. It was here that Bollettieri’s genius as a motivator, innovator, and savant helping young players reach their full potential really took off. The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy was born.
In 1980, at The Colony, he was explaining to a guest, Louis Marx, how the Colony program was growing and how he needed more space and better facilities. Marx, a successful businessperson, replied, “Well, build it.”
Bolletieri asked, “With what?”
Mr. Marx said, “With money. I’ll lend it to you”—and he did. He wrote Bollettieri a check for $1 million, and arranged for an additional $1 million from a bank.
In November 1981, on 40 barren acres of former tomato fields off 34th Street in Bradenton, Bollettieri opened the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. It was the first major sports boarding school in the world with a holistic and fully integrated training program.
Rick Macci, who runs his own tennis academy in Boca Raton and was a former coach of the Williams sisters when they were starting their pro careers, called Bollettieri a pioneer.
“Nick was … the first of the Mohicans,” Macci said. “He really started the academy business, where you bring people together of all walks of life, get them together and battle.
“The passion and care he had for others, he was just one of a kind. He was a great friend and definitely one of the great coaches of all time.”
The model has since been adopted and employed by many others throughout the world.
In 1987, the International Management Group (IMG) bought the Academy, but with the condition that Bollettieri stay on as president and remain active in the development and growth of all the students, as well as continuing to coach top players from around the world onsite.
He was coaching players right up until his death. The Academy now encompasses more than 600 acres with more than 1,400 students from 72 countries.
Macci recalled a lesson Bollettieri taught him a long time ago. In 1991, Macci was at the Canadian Open with Tommy Ho, who was the youngest to win Kalamazoo as a 15-year-old
Bollettieri walked up to Macci and said, “Rick, listen to Nick Bollettieri.”
Imitating Bollettieri, Macci continued, “Here’s some words of wisdom: When you’re giving a lesson and you give someone two cookies and the parent of your next one is watching, you better have three more [cookies] in your pocket.
“He was making a point about how much parental involvement there is and pointing out that if you do it for one, you better be ready to do it for another. That was profound. I thought funny at the time.”
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Bollettieri eventually would go on to coach 10 No. 1-ranked players. Some of his students included Boris Becker, Monica Seles, Jim Courier, and Anna Kournikova.
On Instagram, Tommy Haas, one of Bollettieri’s former students and a No. 2 player in the world, posted a tribute.
“So many memories, I am not sure where to begin,” he wrote. “Thank you for your time, knowledge, commitment, expertise, the willingness to share your skill, your personal interest in mentoring me, and giving me the best opportunity to follow my dreams.
“You were a dreamer and a doer, and a pioneer in our sport, truly one of a kind.”
(A Celebration of Life for Nick Bollettieri is scheduled for Saturday, March 18 at IMG Academy in Bradenton. For more information, go to NickBollettieri.com. In lieu of flowers, the Bollettieri family has asked that contributions be made to the Bollettieri Family Foundation, a charitable organization set up to continue his desire to assist kids in achieving their full potential).