Jimmy Arias was already a 13-year-old tennis prodigy from Buffalo when the fast-talking coach from the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort talked him into moving to Florida in 1978.
“School was over at noon, and I could hit tennis balls the rest of the day,” Arias recently said. “My other choice was moving to Spain — by myself — and working with the Spanish Federation, a bunch of old guys who smoked and didn’t speak English.
“The beach — or Spain? It was a no-brainer for a 13-year-old.”
The high-energy salesman was Nick Bollettieri, a guy who never played competitive tennis past high school. Arias was the first non-local marquee talent to join what would eventually become the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. At the time, it was only three other juniors, two courts in Longboat, Florida, and a room in Bollettieri’s house. After Andre Agassi and Jim Courier arrived, it would become the model for teaching tennis at the elite junior level.
Bollettieri died on Sunday, only a brief bicycle ride from his creation in Bradenton, Florida, surrounded by family and loved ones. He was 91. Everything in the legendary coach’s long and winding journey was larger than life.
If you are a follower of tennis, no last name was necessary. But his was as prolific as they came.
Back in the day, Boris Becker was the first of his students to become the No.1-ranked player in the world. Over the years, he was followed by Monica Seles, Courier, Agassi, Martina Hingis, Marcelo Rios and Jelena Jankovic. Serena and Venus Williams were both touched by his teaching hand, as was Maria Sharapova, who arrived at his academy from Siberia at the age of 9.
In all, 10 players who entered his irresistible orbit became No.1 — an astonishing and unprecedented achievement. Long before places like the Rafael Nadal Academy and national training centres brought together the best and the brightest players, Bollettieri presided over an extraordinary teaching and learning environment in Bradenton.
Courier was 14 years old when he accepted a scholarship to attend in 1984.
“You’re 15, 16 years old and you’re down there with Andre Agassi, Yannick Noah, Johan Kriek,” Courier once said. “You’re a junior, but you’re training as a professional.
“It’s like the Thomas Friedman book, “The World Is Flat”. Nick flattened the tennis world in a very Darwinian way. He put together an ecosystem of the world’s greatest juniors and sprinkled in some pros as well. He created an industry. Imagine, having the talent come to you, rather than the other way around.”
It was a seething cauldron of competition featuring a handful of future tennis stars — Courier, Agassi, Arias and Aaron Krickstein, among others — in their high school years in the1980s. Courier would go on to win four Grand Slam singles titles and Agassi eight.
The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, purchased by International Management Group in 1987, is still in operation — under his name.
In 2014, after long exclusion, Bollettieri was finally extended an invitation to the Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, as a contributor.
Peter Bodo, one of today’s most respected tennis journalists, has been able to separate the Bollettieri’s swaggering style and the substance of his ultimate impact.
“He came into tennis as an outsider,” Bodo said, “just one of the legions of Americans who almost overnight found themselves fascinated by tennis in a new, professional era with all that entailed — crowded stadia, network coverage, branded footwear.
“His legacy is unique. Bollettieri’s eponymous academy provided industrial-grade, immersive training for scores of talented boys and girls, who not only benefited from expert, holistic training, but who lifted and challenged each other to become better with every passing day.”
Mary Pierce, winner of two major titles, explained Bollettieri’s extraordinary achievement this way: “He had such an amazing gift because everyone is so different and you can’t train everyone the same way. That’s what makes him such an amazing coach.
“He knew how to bring out the best in you.”
Bollettieri was born in Pelham, New York, not far from the United States Tennis Association’s sprawling US Open grounds, in 1931. He was a scrappy player in high school — the extent of his competitive run in tennis. After graduating from Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama (with a degree in philosophy), he served in the U.S. Army.
He was attending the University of Miami Law School when tennis eventually lured him away from academia. He started out in the middle 1950s, charging $3 per hour for lessons at Victory Park Courts in North Miami.
His big break was becoming the tennis director of the Dorado Beach Hotel in Puerto Rico. In 1978, he founded the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. Well ahead of his time in terms of mechanics, he preached an aggressive game, stepping inside the baseline and taking the ball early with an inside-out forehand.
The secret of his success, Bollettieri said that year, is communication.
“I believe the gift I have is the ability to relate to people in a very simple way,” he said. “Listen, I’m on the [USTA] board, and they have all kinds of coaches, and they talk about kinetic change and biomechanics, and all that stuff.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t know s—. I don’t really know all those expressions, but what I do know is to be able to relate to people in a manner that fits into who they are. That’s the biggest thing I have.”
No one is more devoted to upholding Bollettieri’s legacy than Arias. Four decades after he first arrived in Florida, Arias rejoined the IMG Academy as the director of tennis, where he oversees some 230 student-athletes. Today, as parents of a certain age know, things are different.
“Our parents sent us away — there was no protection,” Arias said. “Now, it’s not quite as organic — or Lord of the Flies — as it used to be. I think it was good for us in general. You grew up very young and had no one to advocate for you. You had to advocate for yourself.”
Like Bollettieri, Arias is focusing on the basics.
“Technique is important, but at a certain point in time, you have to figure out, ‘How am I going to beat the guy I’m playing today?’” Arias said. “The only way to do that is to play a lot — and a lot of different kinds of players. And win a lot.
“Basically, I’m bringing back the formula that Nick used years ago. It’s the perfect place to test yourself at every level. That’s what he brought to tennis.”