King of the court
The day is a terrible thing to waste, and Nick Bollettieri wouldn't dream of it.
By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published February 25, 2007
BRADENTON -- At 4:25 a.m., a tan Jeep Wrangler whips into a reserved parking spot in the Florida darkness and out steps the ageless King of the Court. His short-cropped gray hair is thinning on top and his skin has been creased by years in the sun. But he sports the same lean 5-10, 160 frame he's had for decades. And hey, even in the middle of the night, his perpetual tan looks pretty darn good. Despite the unforgiving hour, when the rest of the world seems to be sound asleep, Nick Bollettieri strides robustly toward a massive workout center in the midst of the one-of-a-kind, 300-acre empire he founded and that his presence completely permeates.
Clad in a red-white-and-blue windbreaker and matching red shorts and shoes, he is a walking energy field, moving so briskly that keeping up with him in the parking lot shadows is tough.
The truth is, nobody on the premises can really keep up with the reigning dean of tennis coaches, who has helped shape the careers of nine No. 1 players - Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Jim Courier, Maria Sharapova, Venus and Serena Williams, Martina Hingis, Monica Seles and Marcelo Rios - as well as dozens of other world-class players for half a century.
At 75, when many seniors are kicking back in retirement, Bollettieri may have cornered the market on stamina. Three years into marriage No. 8 - neck and neck with Elizabeth Taylor - he appears to have finally met his love match in 42-year-old Cindi, a tall and striking former Ms. Teen Vermont with a master's degree in social work and a self-deprecating sense of humor.
"Nick has his own version of speed dating," she says with a smile. "It's you meet someone, you propose and you get married the next day."
Cindi helps oversee her husband's tennis business and manage his whirlwind schedule and life with a staff of three assistants. Meanwhile, Bollettieri, once an Army paratrooper, a law student, a college philosophy major and a young tennis pro who got a helping hand from Green Bay Packers coaching great Vince Lombardi, never stops working - rarely stops moving - except for the 4-5 hours he allows himself to sleep each night.
"My mind is always going, always thinking of a new way to do something," he says with the enthusiasm of a salesman, which, in part, he is.
He founded the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in 1978 and partnered with IMG in 1987. Out of that has evolved IMG Academies, with Bollettieri serving as president. Today, IMG Academies is a world-class training center for elite athletes from around the globe - juniors to adults, amateurs to pros - who train at Bollettieri's tennis academy, the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, academies for basketball, baseball and soccer, and a physical and mental conditioning program. At times, the place resembles a bustling prep school campus, with students making their way to onsite schools - between lessons and training - riding bikes or toting backpacks and laptops.
And the ones with a special gift for tennis move from their homes in Portugal, China, South Africa, Canada and all over the United States for a chance to train with the master and his pro staff. And if they're good enough, Bollettieri will grant a full or partial scholarship to offset the annual tuition that equates to a high-end college, $30,000-$40,000 a year.
His personality spans the spectrum: from charming and kind-hearted to irascible, demanding and blunt. Those closest to him can wind up on the receiving end of his occasionally tempestuous, Type-A ways, but they know he drives himself as hard as he does everyone else. And his influence on the sport and passion for teaching are still going strong.
Back in the spacious, brightly lit workout room, another day has begun for the man who recently was honored with the naming of Bollettieri Boulevard in Bradenton. It will wind down about 18 hours later - after a blur of lessons, meetings, TV filming and enthusiastic commentary on tennis and life with the distinctively grainy, New York-accented voice of one of the game's legendary instructors and unique characters.
It was a Nick-at-Day-and-Nite marathon and began like this:
Bollettieri stretches in preparation for work with the medicine ball. "Every person in the world should get a big medicine ball and use it when they wake up in the morning and before they go to sleep at night," he says. "Totally relaxes your whole body and lower back!" He flips on a big TV overhead, just in time to catch a live broadcast of Sharapova - who started training at his academy at 9 - beating Vera Zvonareva in the Australian Open. "Keep your head up, Maria," he says to the screen, looking concerned.
"She was training here before Christmas," he adds. "It's very important, because the bigger you get - and Maria is 6-2, pushing 6-3 - an awful lot of work has to be done to get low and move quickly to the ball."
He moves from one weight station to the next, keeping an eye fixed on the match, pumping iron and fielding a reporter's questions as he goes.
Where do you get this energy?
"It's just the way I've always been. I don't think you can allow yourself to even think about being tired. The days are long but the days are interesting. Because when you deal with life and stories and parents, that's interesting. I don't think a person can press 18 or 19 hours into a day if it really wasn't within them. I just enjoy doing it. My alarm is always set for 4 and when it goes off, I'm out of bed."
So how did Vince Lombardi open the door for you in tennis?
"Well, Vince played golf in Dorado Beach in Puerto Rico. He stopped in the tennis center and watched me teaching children. And he said, 'I think you belong with children.' So the next year, I had a job at a club in Chicago and didn't get along too well with the president's wife. So I said, 'to hell with it' and I called up Vince and Art Nielsen of Nielsen Ratings. And the two of them got me started in my first big camp in Beaver Dam, Wis."
It's 9 p.m. in Australia, 5 a.m. in the IMG gym. Sharapova is struggling but holding on. Reporter and photographer are struggling but holding on. Bollettieri just keeps picking up steam. He pulls out a yellow legal pad filled with pages upon pages of meticulously handwritten notes to his administrative staff. "Every night at home, there are certain things I have to answer that my staff compiles for me," he says. "Notes from students wanting to come here. Proposals for me to go to Morocco, Dubai, India and France. I'll be going to England to give clinics and Croatia this summer. My schedule for 2007 is virtually all booked."
He writes his script for a public service announcement to combat child abuse that he'll film after lunch. It's 5:31. Sharapova wins 7-5, 6-4. Bollettieri smiles. "Maria's not playing well, but she's still winning," he says, finishing his workout with a flurry of leg presses beneath a Sharapova U.S. Open poster proclaiming "I Love New York."
He arrives at the cavernous indoor tennis center with the vaulted ceiling and fabric roof just in time to supervise lessons for a dozen promising young players from Russia, Italy, China, France and the United States "This one's tough," he points to a 5-year-old from China training with her 7-year-old brother, their parents watching off to the side. Bollettieri moves to a far court to watch the 10-12-year-olds and adjust their wrist action. "I don't always know their names, but I know their games," he says.
One parent, Dr. George Lin, left Virginia and relocated his family and practice to Tampa Bay so son Carter, 10, could train here. "Nick is great," Lin says. "He's here. He tracks how the kids do. Carter won an intra-academy type tournament a few months ago and Nick found out about it and said, 'Carter, how come you didn't tell me? Who's your coach?' Carter said, 'You.' Nick said, 'And when you win, don't you want to come tell your coach?' He's just so involved."
Bollettieri roams the courts scolding a few instructors ("You gotta explain positions!") and tweaking techniques of the kids. Nearby, career tennis pro Julio Moros, 58, talks about the boss he has had for 35 years, starting in Puerto Rico. "I've been with Nick through the great times and the bad times," he says. "Even though he makes you work very hard, he's very generous. When he makes money, he shares it with you. He's driven so you become driven."
Moros thinks he is one of the few people to see Bollettieri cry.
"One time, one of his wives decided that he wasn't spending enough time with her, so she told him it was either her or the job," he says. "He loved her very much. But he chose the job."
Michelle Larcher de Brito, 13, of Portugal via South Africa arrives for he.