A coaching pioneer at 80 – still striving for winners

Nick Bollettieri's academy has made a host of champions, and he's not resting on his laurels, writes Paul Newman
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The Independent Online

The 80-year-old man stood by the open door of the aeroplane and looked down at the north American countryside 14,000 feet below. "I was the last to jump," he said. "I saw the other guys going out one by one and I said to myself: 'You can't chicken out now, man, you've got to go!' We were in free-fall for 7,000 feet, which took about a minute. I kept my eyes open throughout. When the parachute eventually opens up you breathe a sign of relief and say to yourself: 'Holy s***!' The landing was very good. I'd been told to hold my feet up and almost glide across the grass on my backside as I hit the ground."

You might have expected an octogenarian to celebrate entering his ninth decade with a small glass of sherry, but Nick Bollettieri has spent his life defying expectations. The world's most famous tennis coach, who still works with many of the top players at his IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, turned 80 on Sunday, when he attended a dinner in his honour at the United States Military Academy at West Point, 50 miles north of New York.

The next day the former paratrooper continued his celebrations by joining a group of men from West Point's elite Black Knights parachute team as he made his first jump for 56 years. Yesterday Bollettieri was on another flight, this time with his wife, Cindi, to Ethiopia, where they hope to finalise plans to adopt a three-year-old boy to follow the path of six-year-old Giovanni, whom the couple adopted from the same orphanage two years ago.

Bollettieri has more energy than most 18-year-olds. His zest for life and work was evident this summer at Wimbledon, where he has been a member of The Independent's reporting team for the last decade, especially when Sabine Lisicki, one of his latest protégées, reached the semi-finals.

Lisicki is one of a new generation of players emerging from Bollettieri's academy. It includes the British teenager Heather Watson, the 19-year-old American Ryan Harrison (the second-youngest man in the world's top 100), and Kei Nishikori, a 21-year-old Japanese seen as one of the game's brightest young talents. They will all be hoping to emulate the 10 former world No 1s who worked with Bollettieri – Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Jim Courier, Marcelo Rios, Martina Hingis, Jelena Jankovic, Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova and the Williams sisters.

Learning to play tennis at a live-in institution has become commonplace in the modern game – Andy Murray went to Barcelona as a teenager, and Novak Djokovic, the world No 1, attended Niki Pilic's school in Munich – but the concept was not established until Bollettieri founded his academy 33 years ago. Having persuaded friends to lend him the money to buy a motel and tennis club at Bradenton, on the Gulf of Mexico, he set about establishing an academy to provide both intense high-quality tennis training and a compatible academic curriculum.

In 1987 he joined forces with IMG to turn Bradenton into a training facility for a wide range of sports. The tennis academy, which boasts 56 courts, is now part of a 300-acre complex which also includes the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, the IMG Soccer Academy, the IMG Baseball Academy, the IMG Basketball Academy and the IMG Performance Institute. Some 12,000 athletes from more than 75 countries now learn their sports there.

Bollettieri takes his first class of the day at 6am, his enthusiasm undimmed after more than half a century teaching young people how to play the game. He took a degree in philosophy but then spent two and a half years in the army, volunteering for the paratroopers, and served briefly in Japan just as the Korean War was ending.

"I loved being in the paratroopers," Bollettieri recalled. "They were so disciplined. It had a major impact on my life. I learnt that to be the best you have to be among the best, and everybody must take their share of the load."

Given his commitment to tennis it is no surprise that Bollettieri's private life has often been in turmoil. He has six children, the oldest of whom is 54, while Cindi is his eighth wife.

When Agassi was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame last month he paid Bollettieri a long tribute, saying: "I want you to know how much I appreciate the love and devotion you have for tennis. The Hall Of Fame will not be complete till you are there alongside all the champions you gave the world."