Inside the Bollettieri dream factory

Nick Harris is granted an exclusive glimpse of Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy
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The Independent Online

It is 7am on a Tuesday and Nick Bollettieri has been awake for three hours and buzzing around his fiefdom - aka the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy - for two of them. The Florida sun is barely up so he's using the inside courts, putting groups of teenagers, who started work at 6.15am, through their paces.

It is 7am on a Tuesday and Nick Bollettieri has been awake for three hours and buzzing around his fiefdom - aka the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy - for two of them. The Florida sun is barely up so he's using the inside courts, putting groups of teenagers, who started work at 6.15am, through their paces.

"Hey! What's that crap? You don't need to hit crap like that," he yells at one 12-year-old girl who has misplaced a volley. "Good girl, good girl, excellent," he's screaming moments later when she gets it right.

His attention then turns to Arthur Vibert, a 14-year-old from Lyon whose rangy physique and mop of dark hair make him reminiscent of a young Roger Federer. "OK, Frenchie, time for a work out," yells Bollettieri. (He's never been good with names, not that Vibert, who's on a scholarship trial, minds.)

Bollettieri selects two older boys, and directs them to one side of the court. Vibert is sent to the other, where for 15 minutes he is run ragged as booming smashes rain down and he tries to keep the ball in play. The drill concludes and Vibert, sweating and shaking, wobbles away to take fluids. "It's hard," he says, smiling as he catches his breath. "But it's good."

When the session finishes at 10am, Bollettieri, 73, dressed in wraparound shades, shorts, T-shirt and a trademark perma-tan so ingrained that his skin is beyond leathery, hares off on his next mission. "I got a new bike, it's tremendous!" he says, before taking it for a six-mile spin around the 192-acre IMG Academies campus that also includes centres of excellence for golf, football, basketball and baseball.

Michelle Wie, golfing prodigy, is an alumnus, as is the teenage footballing sensation, Freddy Adu. Umpteen NBA and NFL players regularly use the mental conditioning unit or the cavernous International Performance Institute gym on site.

Later in the day, Bollettieri takes one-on-one coaching sessions and excites an IMG agent with a call to "come see this". It transpires that Bollettieri has not unearthed the next Maria Sharapova, but merely wants to share his enthusiasm that a mid-30s private client has finally cracked her forehand drives.

Whatever admin Bollettieri does - planning coaching clinics, motivational talks, consulting with senior staff about the career paths of their latest crop of talent - it is mostly done standing. He rarely sits still.

Dinner is an exception. He regularly eats at his local Italian. Tuesday evening, 8pm, finds him sitting down to calamari and ice tea and having a look at his daily correspondence. The first letter he opens is a note from someone he'd recently written to, congratulating them on a golfing tournament success. "It meant a lot to me coming from someone such as you, who has been in the spotlight for so long," the note said. "Yours, Tiger Woods."

The day is Bollettieri's life in microcosm: hands-on, helter skelter, vocal, driven, star-tinged. Not that his methods or style meet with universal approval. To his admirers he is guru, sage, benefactor, genius. To his detractors, he is a loud-mouth, a task-master, a man who never competed professionally and picked up technical details on the hoof.

John McEnroe famously once said that Bollettieri "doesn't know anything about tennis". Bollettieri put that quote on the back of his autobiography, in which he readily admits: "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."

If results are what matters, he learned well. His full-time students have won 30 Grand Slam titles, while resident here in Bradenton. They included Andre Agassi, Monica Seles and most recently Sharapova.

The total Grand Slam title haul for players who, at one time or another, have studied under him, rises to a staggering 102. Arguments will always rage over whether to count achievements of players, like Boris Becker, who only turned to Bollettieri having established themselves as champions. But either way, Bollettieri has both produced winners and had the clout and respect to attract established winners to use his services.

At one time the academy was owned by Bollettieri, who gave scholarships too freely and was forced for financial reasons to sell to IMG in 1987. Now the academy is an IMG business, a profit-driven operation.

The success of the academy has given rise to a number of myths. You would expect it to be a hothouse for hoards of pre-teen Eastern Europeans, being groomed or spat out, depending on their prowess. It is, rather, an élite sports boarding school, currently housing 267 tennis scholars from 70-plus different countries, most of them paying their own way. Anyone can apply, if they can meet the annual fees of $34,900 (£19,300) for a junior boarder for the September-May programme ($25,600 for non-boarders). Academic education typically costs $11,000 at the on-site or nearby schools.

Another myth is that every student wants, or even expects, to be a professional. In fact, around 70 per cent have aspirations no greater than being good enough to win sports scholarships to American universities. That still leaves 60-70 students who are dreaming of the big-time, or at least harbouring strong hopes of making it to a career-sustaining level on the professional tour.

"Our message is always you're more likely not to make it than make it," says Carolina Murphy, the admissions director. "I've lost count of the amount of parents who apply for trials or scholarships only to find that their kids were big fish in small ponds back home, but actually average or lower by our standards."

What is certainly not a myth is the Bollettieri work ethic, embodied by long, physically tough days, months of practice, and crucially, competitive action. "You're not just coming here for a tennis lesson," says David "Red" Ayme, a veteran Bollettieri coach. "You're here to compete, and competition is at hand, at all levels, 365 days a year." Courts packed with a mix of youngsters and pros, even in the late-afternoon sun, are testament to that.

The attention to detail on non-tennis development is staggering, includinga mind coaching unit, media and drama department and video analysis suites. And never far away is the founder and figurehead, Bollettieri.

It is 7.30am on Wednesday. A hulking tennis dad - shaven-headed, neck as thick as his thighs, Bond villain-esque in his gait and grimace - marches up to Bollettieri on the practice courts. "Hey!" he shouts, then adds, almost meekly, "You're the best, Nick. Can I have my picture taken with you?"