Remembering Nick Bollettieri, the Hall of Fame tennis coach and game-changer
He was larger than life, and his memory will remain so. Nick Bollettieri, the Hall of Fame coach and pioneer of the famed IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., that's produced many of the game's greatest champions, died Sunday at age 91.
Born in Pelham, N.Y., just north of New York City, on July 31, 1931, Bollettieri's road to becoming a pillar of tennis started far away from the tennis courts. As a student at Pelham Memorial High School, he was quarterback of the football team. After graduating with a degree in philosophy from Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala. (where he played just a year of tennis) in 1953, he became a paratrooper in the U.S. Army. He even spent five months in law school at the University of Miami.
It was in Miami, though, where his personal empire had its humble beginnings: He taught tennis lessons on courts in North Miami Beach for a rate of $1.50 per 30 minutes. A stop at the Port Washington (N.Y.) Tennis Academy, which trained Mary Carillo, Vitas Gerulaitis and John McEnroe, followed, but years later, his own academy model would change tennis for good.
Over his more than 60 years in the industry, Bollettieri coached, either fully or in part, 10 players who went on to rise to world No. 1: Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Jim Courier, Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova, Martina Hingis, Jelena Jankovic, Marcelo Rios, Serena Williams and Venus Williams. Many of those now-Hall of Fame players honed their games as children on Bollettieri's signature campus in Bradenton, which opened in 1978 as the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy and eventually revolutionzied the market for high-level sports performance for all ages.
Purchased by IMG in 1987, it grew into a sprawling, 600-acre community that now also houses facilities for a variety of other sports like basketball, football, golf, soccer, and track and field. But Bradenton will always be known for its footprint in tennis, and much of that was thanks to the big-talking, big-dreaming guy from New York, who knew just how to get the most out of his players, whatever their goals. In 1987, for example, 32 of Bollettieri's current or former students were in the Wimbledon main draw, and 27 played that year's US Open. Countless others populated the Top 100 and the NCAA collegiate ranks in the 1990s and early-aughts.
Equally as important as Bollettieri's contributions to professional tennis was his understanding of the good that the game could do at the grassroots. A champion of the USTA Foundation, the USTA's national charitable arm, Bollettieri frequently was a guest of honor at the USTA Foundation's fundraisers, and charity tennis events and clinics—the proceeds going towards supporting the USTA Foundation's National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) network, a group of nearly 300 non-profit organizations around the country that provide free or low-cost tennis programming and educational support to under-resourced youth.
For six decades, Bollettieri gave kids from all over the globe a home, a chance, and an opportunity in the hopes of reaching their dreams—and he was more than happy to pay it forward to the next generation. No one perhaps embodied the fact that tennis is a sport for a lifetime more than him: Active on court and in the gym even into his late 80s, he was always thrilled to lend an ear to tennis commentators, media and fans looking for his insight and advice when they ran into him at a tournament.
Upon hearing of Bollettieri's passing, tributes to him from the tennis community were numerous and heartfelt. But they all shared a common sentiment: that there might never be another like him.
"Aside from being the greatest coach ever, you were so kind to me, my parents, and my siblings," Chris Evert wrote on Twitter. "That meant more to me than anything; you had a big heart and a zest for living."
In her own tribute, Billie Jean King wrote that Bollettieri was "always positive, and was able to get the best out of everyone fortunate enough to work [with] him," and Martina Navratilova said he was "an amazing coach," who "transformed how tennis is taught."
"Most of all, you were a very kind human being," Navratilova added, "[and] it was an honor to have known you."
Inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2014, Bollettieri is survived by his wife, Cindi, seven children and four grandchildren.