Saturday 20 January 2018

Centre court Svengali: Nick's net worth

Nick Bollettieri has coached dozens of tennis legends, but he's still working at 85. He spoke to Donal Lynch about Wimbledon, his eight wives, and the challenge of keeping a tan in Dublin

Nick Bollettieri in Dublin last week. Photo: Colin O'Riordan.
Nick Bollettieri in Dublin last week. Photo: Colin O'Riordan.
Anna Kournikova
Hingis and Seles
Maria Sharapova
Serena Williams
Venus Williams involved in car crash

We may be in the salubrious confines of a tennis club - David Lloyd in Clonskeagh - but Nick Bollettieri seems curiously out of place. His mahogany tan glows beside the white faces that surround him, and it almost seems surreal to see this centre-court Svengali offering tips in suburban Dublin.

or a die-hard fan of the sport like me, shaking his hand feels like reaching out to touch a holy relic. It is the hand that touched the hands. Bollettieri has coached more tennis players to Grand Slams than any other coach in history. The Williams sisters, Andre Agassi, Monica Seles and Anna Kournikova are just a few of those who developed under his watchful eye. He can spot greatness in a spindly 7-year-old from 80 yards. He can eke out the last bit of championship-winning effort from a touring pro.

For 30 years he has been as much a part of Wimbledon as rain and royal applause. It seems astounding then, that at the grand old age of 85, he's still going, still making that annual pilgrimage to SW19. I'm just musing about this when he shoots me a look and responds, "my boy, if you had eight wives worth of alimony to pay, you'd still be working too."

Did I mention that Nick is also the Elizabeth Taylor of tennis? It is an extraordinary number of weddings, I remark, and an extraordinary number of times to forgo a pre-nuptial agreement. "That's life", Nick tells me. "Did I think they were forever? I didn't even think, to be honest. If I thought about things forever I'd never be where I am. I'm happy now (he is currently married to Cindi Eaton, 30 years his junior, who runs a non-profit fitness camp with him). I look forward, I never look back. I make a decision and I go."

Anna Kournikova
Anna Kournikova

It seems like a bit of a mirror for some of the key professional relationships of Bollettieri's illustrious career. At the highest level the role of tennis guru requires a type of serial monogamy: total commitment followed by a Dear John. He rightly takes the credit for guiding so many of the greats to the pantheon, but sometimes when things haven't worked out there has been immediate rancour followed by the slow development of mutual respect. He virtually adopted Andre Agassi as a 13-year-old, for instance, and through a fractious quasi-father-son relationship moulded the young Las Vegan into a word beater. Nick sat in Agassi's box while he beat his arch rival Jim Courier - another Bollettieri prodigy - at the French Open in 1991 and was in the player's box (alongside Barbra Streisand) at Wimbledon again the following year as Agassi won the title and set a zillion teenage girls' hearts fluttering. They didn't see eye-to-eye however, and Bollettieri ended the relationship by letter. "Doing it like that was a big regret for me, I wish it hadn't happened that way" he says now. Nick would go on to coach Agassi's nemesis - Boris Becker - and Agassi took it about as well as he might if Brooke Shields had cheated with Bollettieri. "It was very difficult for me to tell Becker how to beat Andre at Wimbledon in 1995" he tells me, adding that he was there when Agassi "kicked Becker's ass" during the Miami tournament one year.

Similarly, his relationship with Monica Seles did not end well. Bollettieri had seen Seles, as a nine-year-old, destroy the best 12-year-old in the US. He immediately signed her and brought the whole family over to Florida from Yugoslavia, paying for housing and tuition for the tenacious phenomenon. Then, a few months before she went on the tournament run that would bring her to number one in the world, the Seles family abruptly left the Academy. In her autobiography Monica all but wrote Bollettieri out of the story of her success, claiming her father Karolj had always been the coach. "The father was not the easiest," he tells me, and he wasn't happy initially with how things worked out. But today things are different. "Monica is one of the best people I have ever met. She calls me up and asks me if she can help me. She is a great lady."

Agassi, too, warmed again to Bollettieri as time went on, and was there two years ago when Bollettieri was inducted in the the Tennis Hall of Fame in Rhode Island. Shamefully, Bollettieri had come up on the ballot a couple of years before, but not been elected, which some, like legendary player Jim Courier, labelled "a joke" and others put down to the coach's reputation as what writer Joel Drucker called "a hustler but not a huckster." It's a phrase that flashes through my head as he shows me before and after pictures of the top of his bald head - the second with noticeably more hair, the result, he says, of pills which a friend of his invented. I look and agree it's amazing, while imagining the wrinkled noses in Newport Rhode Island. Hair loss pills in country club Valhalla? Of course they didn't want to let him in.

That's also because Bollettieri, in his own way, was as much of an upstart as Billie Jean King had been in tennis. He brought army-like discipline into the resolutely middle-class sport, all the while dealing with sleazy sports agents, tyrant fathers and fickle starlets. If he didn't have a little hustle, you feel, he would never have made it.

Malcolm Gladwell says that iconoclasts usually come from outside the field they transform. Bollettieri grew up in New York, in an immigrant Italian family, far from the country clubs where he would one day work. After college, he became a paratrooper but in a break from work one summer began teaching tennis for $3 an hour on Miami Beach, even though "I didn't know one end of the racket from another." He got a job working for the Rockefeller family as a tennis coach at the Colony Beach Hotel in Florida, which he developed into what was then regarded as the best tennis camp in the world. "One day there was a little girl waiting after we finished practising and I asked her 'when is your Daddy picking you up?", he recalls. "And she said, 'he's not picking me up, I'm going home with you." The girl turned out to be Carling Bassett, a Canadian sensation from the 1980s. She was his first prodigy. Eventually, Bollettieri had ten people living in his family house. "Two wives left", he tells me. "They couldn't do it, ok? So I bought a little motel in Bradenton (Florida) and a tennis club beside it. There were ten in a room, I should have been locked up."

It was the first tennis factory in the world. His daughter, he tells me, shared a room with a Chinese player, Hu Na. "The fucking Chinese had swat teams and everything come to San Francisco, they were going to bomb the Academy. Hu Na was the first sportsperson to defect from China, so it was a very tense situation." Nick has some regrets, he tells me; his older children, spread across the various wives, took second place to his championship-winning proteges. One of these, Nicole, married Brad Kroenig, Karl Lagerfeld's preternaturally chiselled muse, and Bollettieri seems as proud of him as he is of his own children - he has seven in total.

Hingis and Seles
Hingis and Seles

"I do wish that I'd spent more time with my older kids, I've told them that", he says. "I sacrificed my children for my career. I was travelling 36 weeks a year. They understand, though. We were building something very big."

That was the Bollettieri production line of champions. The tennis academy was purchased by IMG is 1987 and today spans more than 500-acres.  In 1994, the Academy began adding golf, football, baseball, and basketball, and is now home to eight total sports, including athletics. The boarding school has an average annual enrollment of just over 1,000 students from more than 80 countries, in addition to the thousands of campers who visit the campus throughout the year.

Over the years he would groom player after player to the pinnacle of the sport, but he wasn't without his critics. To him this criticism and his own response is summed up in one anecdote. "When I was on 60 minutes (ABC's flagship news programme) the anchor was interviewing a sports psychiatrist and the psychiatrist was saying I was crazy - which I am - and that I didn't feed the kids and beat them up - which I never did. And my poor old mother was screaming in Italian at the television - because that's what we spoke at home in the family - and my father, a quiet, nice-looking man, turned to her and he said, 'Mary, you know what, when they're talking about you, you're somebody and when they're not, you ain't nobody. And no matter what they say, you just say thank you.' So that's always been my philosophy."

He seems to have the Midas touch, but, he tells me, it was never that simple. "Even with all the talent and all the will in the world, I tell parents that the child has literally a one-in-one-million chance of making it. It's really that difficult. You don't make a dime until you are ranked 70 or 80 in the world today. There are so many things that can go wrong, injury, burn-out, loss of focus."

Which brings us to Anna Kournikova, whose burgeoning career promised much in the late 1990s, but seemed to peter out amid a blizzard of modelling contracts. On the day we meet in Clonskeagh, the picture used to promote his visit shows him, looking much younger, with the ponytailed Russian looking on intently at his advice. "She jumped in the basket on the first day and said 'I'm here for my lesson.' I think that momma - Alla - was probably too much involved and didn't give me enough time to develop her forehand, which was too flat. But hey, she's not doing too bad now - she's still with Enrique Igelsias. She stays with me all the time."

Kournikova's mother travelled with her, but tennis is primarily notorious for its prevalence of tyrant fathers - sports' equivalent of the stage mother - and Bollettieri dealt with his fair share of them. "We did the basic work. The parents tend to write the coaches out of history because that's the way the parents become successful in life. That's how they make themselves relevant. It's difficult of course, but if you know who you are, you let it be. I never said anything derogatory about Seles, for instance, and it was better that way. My relationship with Richard Williams (father of Venus and Serena) was the best. You bet your life he coached them. When everyone said he didn't know about tennis, well now it looks like what the hell were they talking about? And of course they had no idea what they were talking about because look at what became of those two ladies: Both number one in the world. Both legends."

Serena Williams
Serena Williams

Serena has faltered twice this year in her quest to match Steffi Graf's all time mark of 22 Grand Slam titles. What does Bollettieri see when he looks at her game now? "Well, in the semis of the US Open last year, (Roberta) Vinci chopped, chipped and sliced every ball and Serena didn't know what to do. In the finals of the French Open this year, it was the first time anyone out-hit her and she didn't know how to change the pace. Her movement is also not as explosive as it was. This coming Wimbledon is damn important now. Players are not afraid of her. And when you lost that fear factor, you'd better watch your back. The problem she has is similar to the one many top players have; the depth is just incredible now. The players ranked 80 or 90 in the world believe they have a chance."

He is circumspect when asked about Maria Sharapova, and what will happen now that she has been banned for two years, for using Meldonium. It's a difficult one for him to touch - he guided Sharapova from her earliest days. "I will always remember her on the court and how she worked her ass off. It would be emotional for me to say anything, so I stay out of it."

Bollettieri is in Dublin to give a coaching clinic, but it's difficult to imagine any Irish parent making the sacrifices and taking the risks required to put their kid on the path to tennis greatness. What would it take for a country like this to produce a champion? "People are rightly hesitant, because it's very expensive", Bollettieri says. "And looking around here, what can I tell you?; maybe they would have more to lose by taking that kind of risk. Where I came in was I helped people overcome that risk, with scholarships. You need good athletes competing with good athletes. In the academy we fought, but it made the kids into warriors. The smartest player was Hingis, the hardest workers were Seles and Sharapova."

He celebrated his eightieth birthday five years ago by skydiving out of a plane, and he tells me he has no notion of slowing down. "I give an average of six lessons a day, and by 3pm I'm on the golf course." He continues to work on his legendary tan (he bemoans the Irish weather, telling me "I got the goddamn reflector here in the sun here in the back and there was no sun!"). He and Cindi have two little boys together, whom they adopted from Ethiopia, Giovanni, eleven, and Giacomo, eight. The adoption process was "very long and difficult, especially at my age" but now he dotes on the two boys. He doesn't teach them tennis though - only one of his children ever made a name as a junior and he never pushed any of them into it.

The Royal Air force is giving him a ride in a plane to celebrate his upcoming 85th birthday, and over the next couple of weeks, and in between, he'll juggle a vast array of media and coaching commitments. You get the impression he does it all with good humoured gusto though. "I've had a great life. When I got into the Hall of Fame, Federer and Sampras (two of the biggest players he didn't coach) wrote the warmest letters for me. I was just blown away by what they wrote and if they think it, maybe it's true. I'm a happy guy."

David Lloyd Riverview, located in Beech Hill, Clonskeagh, is now taking bookings for their DL Kids, tennis and swim camps for the children. For information on these and their membership packages, please contact David Lloyd on 01 218 9600 or enquire at www.davidlloyd.ie.

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