Nick Bollettieri, the Hall of Fame tennis coach who worked with some of the sport’s biggest stars, including Andre Agassi and Monica Seles, and founded an academy that revolutionized the development of young athletes, has died. He was 91 years old.
Bollettieri died Sunday night at his Florida home after a series of health issues, his manager Steve Shulla said in a phone interview with The Associated Press on Monday.
“When he got sick, he got so many wonderful messages from former students, players and coaches. Many came to visit him. He got videos from others,” Shulla said. “It was wonderful. He touched so many lives and he got off to a great start.”
Known for his gravelly voice, tough skin and wraparound sunglasses – and a man who called himself the “Michelangelo of tennis” despite never playing professionally – Bollettieri has helped no less than 10 players who became No. 1 in the world rankings. This group includes sisters Serena and Venus Williams, Jim Courier, Maria Sharapova, Agassi and Seles.
He remained active into his 80s, traveling the world to compete in top tournaments and, in 2014, became the fourth coach to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. It was the same year that another of his proteges, Kei Nishikori, reached the final of the US Open.
“I forged my own path, which others found unorthodox and downright crazy,” Bollettieri said in his induction speech at the hall in Newport, Rhode Island. “Yes, I’m crazy. But it takes crazy people to do things that others say can’t be done.”
The Bollettieri Tennis Academy opened in 1978 in Bradenton, Florida and was purchased by IMG in 1987.
The IMG Academy now spans over 600 acres and offers programs in over half a dozen sports in addition to tennis.
Bollettieri was an educator who would boast that he had never read a book, not to mention the fact that he majored in philosophy in college and even tried law school, albeit for less than a year.
He was also a stickler for self-promotion – one who published a pair of autobiographies – regardless that his detractors saw him as a hustler and peddler. The truth is that not all criticism lived up to the astonishing success of his students.
His teaching methods were widely copied and tennis academies dot the world today.
The first student of Bollettieri to reach number 1 was Boris Becker in 1991. Then came others, such as Martina Hingis, Marcelo Rios and Jelena Jankovic.
Equally gratifying, Bollettieri said, were the successes of less accomplished players.
“The fuel that has sustained me to the top is, without a doubt, my passion to help others become champions in life, not just champions on the tennis court,” he said. . “Nothing makes me happier than when I meet a former student or get a kind note telling me how I changed their lives, that they are better parents, lawyers, doctors, CEOs and people because of the impact I had on their lives.”
Bollettieri’s dedication to his players came at a cost. For much of his career, he was on the road nine months a year and he cited his travel schedule as one of the reasons he was married eight times.
Nicholas James Bollettieri was born on July 31, 1931 in Pelham, New York. He earned a philosophy degree and played tennis at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, and was a paratrooper in the military before enrolling in law school at the University of Miami.
To spend money, Bollettieri started teaching tennis for $1.50 an hour, according to the Hall of Fame. More than 60 years later, his fee was $900.
After a few months, he dropped out of law school to focus on coaching. At first, he conceded, knowledge of tennis technique was not his forte.
“I didn’t know much about teaching the game,” he said. “The gift God gave me was the ability to read people.”
Bollettieri received praise for his motivational abilities, shouting when he felt it was necessary. He had an eye for talent and was a visionary when it came to training camp for young athletes who lived together.
He bought a club in 1978 and students lived in his house. Two years later, he borrowed $1 million from a friend to build a one-of-a-kind resort in what had been a tomato field.
The site now has a boarding school, 55 tennis courts and facilities for seven other sports, including football, basketball and baseball.
Running a business was not Bollettieri’s forte, and he sold the academy to IMG but continued to work there, emphasizing a tactical approach that transformed tennis. He urged players to take advantage of modern racquet technology, emphasizing power over finesse.
The academy produced big hitters who relied on their serve and forehand to defeat their opponents. This approach has worked for Agassi, Seles, Courier and many others.
“In my dreams,” Bollettieri confessed with a smile, “I say, ‘Nick, you’re damn good. “”