MIAMI — The headline on a Miami Herald article from Aug. 7, 1983, read: “Courting Fame: Nick Bollettieri Says His Grueling Tennis School Is the Wave of the Future for All Sports. He May be Right. But is it Right for the Kids?”
The story, written by Steve Sonsky, began like this:
“Imagine in the wildest Disney dreams of your childhood the perfect escape from parents and schoolhouse drudgery: They send you to a place where everyone is tanned and pretty and algebra is of little consequence so long as you can count to 40 by 10s and 15s. You do little but play outdoors all day long, and dreams of fairytale stardom and worldwide fame are encouraged and nurtured, and your only end is to become the very best person in the whole world at this game you’re playing, and you have lots of friends there and they all have the same interests as you.
“Join us then, at The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, Bradenton, Florida, where tennis is the game, and fame is the fantasy. But wait. It turns out that tennis isn’t merely a game. It’s an industry. It’s life. And near death. It hurts.”
Five years earlier, in 1978, Bollettieri had established his now-famous tennis academy, a military-style boarding school with extreme, high intensity training for tennis prodigies. Parents would send their children from all over the world, and make financial sacrifices, for the regimented lifestyle and dream of a pro career.
His approach of full immersion and specialization in a singular sport transformed junior tennis. Eventually that philosophy spilled over to other sports and — for better or worse — became the model for the professionalization of youth sports we see today.
Bollettieri, a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, died Sunday at the age of 91. He sold his academy to IMG in 1987, and it expanded to become a multisport facility and recruiting breeding ground for elite athletes in basketball, football, golf, soccer, baseball, and lacrosse.
Although Bollettieri had not produced a world tennis champion for two decades, his imprint on the game — and youth sports, in general — is still felt and will be everlasting.
In its heyday, the Bollettieri Academy helped develop greats such as Andre Agassi, Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams (who attended briefly, at age 14), Jim Courier, Boris Becker, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, Anna Kournikova, and Tommy Haas. The famed Italian-American coach was involved in the careers of 10 world No. 1-ranked players.
His vision of providing young athletes with courtside video cameras to record practice, sports psychologists, performance coaches and nutritionists is now the norm at similar types of sports academies across America and the world.
Tennis commentator and former player Patrick McEnroe, asked by the Herald about Bollettieri’s contribution to tennis, said: “Nick B was at the forefront of creating what we now know as the `academy’ business. Bringing as many good kids together to train year round was revolutionary. His energy and enthusiasm were contagious.
“For someone who began teaching tennis in his 20’s with no background in the game, Nick became an iconic tennis coach and figure.”
Word got around in recent months that Bollettieri’s health had declined as a result of kidney problems. A premature report of his death showed up on social media, prompting the charismatic coach to send out this message:
“I would like to reassure everyone that contrary to what you might have read, I am still alive and kicking. Not much can keep this old Italian down for long. I have my family here and lots of visitors, which makes me very happy!
“I love all the messages you send, the phone calls, and the voicemails you leave. I always say, “it ain’t easy”, but it sure is worth it. I am one lucky guy. I wish you all the best.”
Agassi reached out to Bollettieri on Thanksgiving. Surely others of his other alumni did, too.
Bollettieri, quoted in that 1983 Herald article, said: “If I had to predict, I’d say, in the future, camps like mine will produce all our better athletes. And not just in tennis but in all sports — football camps, swimming camps…. Like Lombardi, I hope in 30, 40 years, that someone says that Nick Bollettieri has contributed to tennis, to sport.”
Well, Nick, here we are, 39 years later and we can say, unequivocally, that you contributed to tennis and to sport. Your name has become synonymous with youth sports academies and will forever be linked with legends such as Agassi, Courier, Seles and Sharapova.
But is (the academy) good for kids? the Herald’s Sonsky asked Bollettieri.
“Yes,” said Nick. “But it’s not for everybody.”
Then how do you tell whom it’s good for, and whom it might hurt?
“One of the things that has made me successful,” said Bollettieri, “is being able to tell.”
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