Nick Bollettieri: A coaching pioneer at 80 – still striving for winners

His groundbreaking academy has moulded a string of champions, and as he enters his ninth decade he's in no mood to rest on his laurels

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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 shit!' The landing was very good. I'd been told to hold my feet up and almost glide across the grass on my backside as you hit the ground. My daughters were there to greet me. I think they were rather relieved when it was all over."

You might have expected an octogenarian to celebrate entering his ninth decade with a small glass of sherry or an extra cream cake, but Nick Bollettieri has spent his life defying expectations. The world's most famous tennis coach, who still works with many of the game's best players at his groundbreaking 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 from a plane for 56 years, leaping in tandem with Colonel Steve Fleming. Yesterday morning Bollettieri was on another flight, this time with his wife, Cindi, to Ethiopia, where they are hoping to finalise plans to adopt a three-year-old boy, who will 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, let alone 80-year-olds, and is showing no signs of slowing down. His zest for life and work was evident in the joy he expressed this summer at Wimbledon – where he has been a member of The Independent's reporting team for the last decade – when Sabine Lisicki, one of his latest protégés, 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, who is the second youngest man in the world's top 100, and Kei Nishikori, a 21-year-old Japanese regarded as one of the game's brightest young talents. They will all be hoping to follow in the footsteps of the 10 former world No 1 players who worked with Bollettieri – Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Jim Courier, Marcelo Rios, Martina Hingis, Jelena Jankovic, Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova and Venus and Serena Williams.

Learning to play tennis at a live-in institution has become commonplace in the modern game – Andy Murray, for example, went to Barcelona to train as a teenager, and Novak Djokovic, the Wimbledon champion and current 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 initially persuaded friends to lend him the money to buy a motel and tennis club at Bradenton, on the Gulf of Mexico, Bollettieri set about establishing an academy which provided 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 currently learn their sports there.

Bollettieri, who takes his first class of the day at 6am, remains as active as ever, his enthusiasm undimmed after more than half a century teaching young people how to play the game. Born in Pelham, a town in Westchester County, New York, he graduated from Spring Hill College in Alabama with a degree in philosophy. He spent two and a half years in the army, volunteered for the paratroopers and rose to the rank of first lieutenant. He served briefly in Japan just as the Korean War was ending.

"I loved being in the paratroopers," Bollettieri recalled. "They were so disciplined. We were all volunteers. When you have a group of volunteers who all observe the same discipline you have a chance to be successful. It had a major impact on my life. I learned that to be the best you have to be among the best and everybody must take their share of the load."

From the army Bollettieri went to law school at the University of Miami, only to drop out after six months. He had started to play tennis at college, though he soon discovered that he had a greater talent for teaching. "I began teaching in North Miami Beach," he said. "There were two tennis courts with broken-down fences and I began working there. I made $3 an hour. Brian Gottfried was one of my students. He came to me when he was 10 and went on to become world No 3 in singles."

Among the other people Bollettieri came across in North Miami Beach was Fred Perry, the last British man to win Wimbledon, who was the director of tennis at the nearby Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, Florida. "I'd go by in my bright yellow Buick convertible and Fred would give me a wave," Bollettieri recalled. "'I enjoy watching you drive past each day, Nick,' he told me. 'Yeah, Fred, smart wheels, huh?' I replied. Fred said: 'It's not the car, Nick. It's the fact that there's always a beautiful woman in the passenger seat.'"

Bollettieri went on to work for 17 years for the Rockefeller family as director of tennis at their hotels, spending his winters at the Dorado Beach Hotel in Puerto Rico, where a chance meeting with Vince Lombardi, the legendary gridiron coach, led to an important breakthrough in his career.

"I didn't really know Vince, but he would sometimes stop for a chat," Bollettieri said. "One day he was going out to play golf with Chi-Chi Rodriguez and he looked at me and said: 'You know, you belong with children.' It was something I remembered when I found myself out of a job a few years later.

"I was working at a country club in Chicago. The president's wife didn't like me and I didn't like her. She complained that the courts were too dry, so I turned on the sprinkler – while she was playing. I was very quickly out of a job, so I called Vince. He and AC Nielsen [founder of a global marketing research firm] helped me set up my first camp at Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, not far from Green Bay, where Vince coached the Packers."

In 1975 Bollettieri was offered a job at the Colony Beach Hotel at Longboat Key, Florida, which quickly became a major tennis resort. It was while working there that he started thinking seriously about establishing his own academy. "The academy really started in my house," he said. "I had nine students living there with me – people like Jimmy Arias, Aaron Krickstein, Carling Bassett, Kathleen Horvath and Pam Casale. It was then that I borrowed the money to set up Bradenton."

The academy quickly attracted the attention of young eastern European players and their families. Seles, who was born in Serbia to Hungarian parents, was one of the first to attend. Sharapova was only nine when she arrived and Jankovic 12. Of the other women players he has coached, Bollettieri cherished the chance to work with the Williams sisters and hails Anna Kournikova for leading the breakthrough in Russian tennis.

Rios, who became world No 1 but never won a Grand Slam title, had enormous talent but was one of Bollettieri's greatest disappointments as he failed to realise his potential on the court. Courier had less natural ability but his dedication and work ethic were unrivalled. Bollettieri enjoyed working with Becker later in his career and has huge affection for Tommy Haas and Max Mirnyi, two current players who have spent all their professional lives at Bradenton.

When pushed for his finest moment, Bollettieri nominates Agassi's victory at Wimbledon in 1992. "That had to be the biggest highlight of my career," Bollettieri said. "Andre was and still is a very special person. I love him to bits. I think that experience in 1992 is also one of the reasons I've grown to love Wimbledon so much. Coming over to Wimbledon is always one of the highlights of my year.

"I have a very soft spot for my local tournament in Miami, but apart from that the two tournaments I love the most are the US Open and Wimbledon. They're totally different. One is prim and proper, at the other one everyone is scrambling here and there, yelling and causing a commotion. I don't think those tournaments can be equalled anywhere in the world."

Given his commitment to tennis – his passion for the sport is probably matched only by his love of golf, which he plays every weekend – 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.

One of her predecessors was so angered by the amount of time her husband was spending with Agassi that she issued an ultimatum: "It's Andre or me." Bollettieri recalled: "There could only be one answer. I took my laundry out of the washing machine, put it in the back of the Corvette that Andre had given me and drove off with $4,000 in my pocket. I left her everything else. Andre was special. Besides, I knew that if I had stayed at home the marriage would never have lasted anyway."

My Aces, My Faults, Bollettieri's autobiography, was published 15 years ago. For the last three years the coach has been co-operating with a book based on interviews with 275 different people who have been part of his life. "The book comes out at the end of the year and it's going to be fantastic," he said. "I won't read it until it comes out. It has seven of my eight wives in it. I probably didn't pay the eighth wife enough alimony."

Bollettieri, who has also found time to establish a non-profit summer camp to help obese girls, has not been without his critics. He has been accused of running Bradenton as a "boot camp" and of producing unimaginative players who know only how to hit the ball as hard as they can from the baseline. Bollettieri counters by pointing out that he pioneered the swing volley, one of the most effective shots in the modern game, and that Gottfried, a fine exponent of the volley and doubles player, was one of his first protégés.

Besides, no one is forced to stay at Bradenton and the academy's record for producing successful players speaks for itself. When Agassi was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame last month he paid tribute to Bollettieri in a letter: "Thank you for being there for me at the most formative times of my life and career. As an adult looking back, I can't imagine what a handful I must have been. You gave me the space to grow and experiment, you gave me counsel and wisdom. You gave me time to get to know my game and myself."

Agassi added: "I want you to know how much I appreciate the love and devotion you have for tennis. You were up at five in the morning, tirelessly creating the environment that we needed to thrive. You lived and breathed tennis and created an unparalleled generation of champions. The International Tennis Hall Of Fame will not be complete until you are there alongside all of the champions that you gave to the world."

A day in the life: Bollettieri's busy routine

4.45am The alarm goes off, though I never need it. I'm always awake by then.

5.20am Arrive at the academy. I spend 40 minutes stretching, doing light weights and a couple of hundred sit-ups.

6am - 11.30am On court with students. I'll do sessions with the scholarship students and also some private lessons.

11.30am – 1pm Time for lunch, though work never stops. I'll have meetings with my business staff over something to eat.

1pm - 5pm Back on court for more lessons.

5pm - 6pm I finish the day by working out in the pool for an hour.

6pm My favourite part of each and every day is coming home and seeing my wife, Cindi, and our son, Giovanni.

6.30pm Dinner with Cindi.

7.30pm I catch up with emails and work with Cindi on the columns and articles that I write for outlets around the world.

11pm Bed. I only need five or six hours' sleep. My whole life has been that way.