As a former player and coach, here’s my take from the tennis side on Bollettieri.
- Nick invented the tennis academy and the concept is brilliant. Kids who want to play tennis year round could go to Florida and take classes that would end by noon. If a kid or a parent dreams of their kid becoming a professional tennis player it’s an opportunity to get year round training and the chance (if they’re really good) to play with some of the best young players around.
- Bollettieri is a very good judge of talent. He offered scholarships to young junior champions and that investment paid off handsomely.
- Bollettieri was good at motivating his players, building their trust and instilling confidence in them that they would perform well because they had put in the work. But that confidence is based on the players’ belief in their guru, and not the underlying quality of his instruction.
- He is fantastic at marketing himself. As seen in the interviews described above, he has never stopped himself with doubts, self-consciousness, or any sense of remorse. When John McEnroe famously said that Bollettieri “doesn’t know anything about tennis,” Bollettieri put that quote on the back of his auotbiography. Nick admitted “When I first started coaching, I faked it. I pretended to know more than I did. I bullshitted my way through. But I looked and I listened, and I learned.” It takes a lot of balls to do what he did, and even more balls to lean into a humiliating revelation that he was a fraud.
- The basic concept of a tennis academy is a simple numbers game, especially if your academy is the first of its kind. If you can get the National 12 and under champion to come to your academy (Jimmy Arias, his first big player), all the rich tennis parents are going to send their kids. Other good juniors are going to come for the chance to practice with Arias. Thousands of kids have attended the academy over the years. Because everybody talks about the handful of players who make it big, nobody pays attention to the thousands of kids who burn out, or fail to make it in tennis. While I wouldn’t say it is a total scam, as Agassi has said, the reality is there is no auditing of these academies to determine if, or how much of a difference each one makes in the development of young players.
- Bollettieri really doesn’t know anything about tennis. A couple of years ago, I saw him do an instructional spot on the Tennis Channel. He told his student to turn her shoulders, instead of taking her racket back, and admitting this was something he’d only learned recently. When I played tennis at UCLA forty years ago, my coach talked about turning the shoulders to prepare for each shot. This is perhaps the most basic technical information any competent tennis teacher should know, and Nick only learned it two years ago. The idea that he ever helped tennis players learn to play is ridiculous. But that is a separate issue from having some of the traits of a good coach.
- The Bollettieri system is simply based on an incredible amount of discipline and hard work, but has no awareness of the individual player. I can speak to that directly. As a tennis coach in the late 1980s, I worked with a player looked more like a football player. He was 6'1", could dunk a basketball, and had a good throwing arm. But he didn’t have a light frame and the speed and change of direction that goes with it. For this reason, I helped him develop a big first serve, hit a one handed backhand slice to come to the net and improve his volleys, and learn to hit balls on the rise to attack as many balls as possible. His mom decided to send him to Bollettieri’s acadamey for the summer, and they completely changed his game, turning him into a clay court clone who hit kick serves, a whippy topspin forehand and a two-handed backhand.
For me, ruining my student by forcing the kid into a system that did not match his physical skill set was the most unforgivable sin.