Tennis lost one of its most charismatic characters on Monday when Nick Bollettieri, the flamboyant coach who turned Andre Agassi into a world-beater, died at the age of 91.
Bollettieri could barely hit a forehand, yet his extraordinary force of personality made him a Svengali for so many tennis champions. His roll call of honour included the Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova, Boris Becker, Monica Seles and Jim Courier. And then there was the Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Florida – a ruthless tennis boot-camp that Agassi famously described as “Lord of the Flies with forehands”.
The all-encompassing, 24-7 approach that Bollettieri pioneered has since become the norm for aspiring juniors, churning out relentless ball-bashers who often lack a rounded education.
Agassi was one such. Having been explicitly developed as a tennis prodigy by his Iranian-Armenian father, who used to fire balls at him from a primitive ball machine on their backyard court, Agassi arrived at the militaristic Bollettieri Academy at the age of 13 and hated it from day one.
Theirs was one of the most unlikely alliances in the history of sport, yet it delivered what Bollettieri described as “my greatest memory in tennis” when he watched Agassi defeat Goran Ivanisevic in the 1992 Wimbledon final. The two men had butted heads for years, especially over Agassi’s bizarre fashion sense. As Bollettieri wrote in his autobiography: “It wasn’t unusual to see him with red hair one day, blue the next, nails polished, sometimes even rouge [on his cheeks].”
On arriving in Bradenton in 1983, Agassi’s own first impression was of a man who “is fiftysomething, but looks 250, because tanning is one of his obsessions, along with tennis and getting married”. In fact Bollettieri married eight times, although he insisted that a couple of his ex-wives barely counted because their alliances were so short-lived.
If a woman ever happened to ask Bollettieri “Have you really had eight wives?” he used to reply “Why, are you looking to become the ninth?”
Bollettieri had originally wanted to be a fighter pilot but failed the written test. Even so, he served as a paratrooper in Japan before moving to Miami at the end of his tour of duty, primarily because he loved to surf.
As he told me in a 2014 interview, speaking in his distinctive sandpapery whisper: “My dad wanted me to be a lawyer. There were these two tennis courts across from the city administration building, and I had to make a little money. I didn’t know my ass from my elbow, but I began teaching at three dollars an hour. After five months I dropped out of law school and I said: ‘I’m gonna stick with tennis.’”
The first time I spoke to Bollettieri was via a scratchy phone line after Andy Murray had won his maiden Wimbledon title in 2013. We were both guests on a BBC discussion of this epochal achievement, but I might as well not have bothered because Bollettieri left zero airspace for anyone else. A self-declared motormouth, his passion and knowledge were extraordinary, and frankly he had much more to offer the listeners than me.
No fewer than 10 world No 1s came through Bradenton, which has now been taken over by a giant sports-entertainment complex and rebranded as the IMG Academy. In his entertaining book, Changing The Game, Bollettieri also claimed credit for numerous technical innovations, including the drive volley (known as the swing volley by Americans) and the reverse forehand (originated by his early pupil Jimmy Arias and later perfected by Rafael Nadal) in which the racket finishes behind the head after a lasso-style whipping motion.
Less positively, Bollettieri was associated with the emergence of grunting. The most successful grunters in women’s tennis – Serena Williams, Sharapova, Seles – all worked with him, as did the loudest of them all: Michelle Larcher de Brito of Portugal. In his book, he wrote: “I never taught it but I defended it because a number of my champions have made it part of their arsenal of weapons.”
News of Bollettieri’s death is sad but not unexpected, as he had been fading for some time. A fortnight ago, his family posted a message on social media to rebut premature claims that he had already passed away.
On Monday, he received a touching send-off from former world No 2 Tommy Haas. “I surely will miss you around the Academy, our tennis talks, miss showing of your tan, white teeth and body fat, miss watching you do Tai Chi, miss playing golf [and] watching you try to cheat, eating a Snickers bar and running for the bushes, and hearing all about your plans even at the age of 91. Thanks again for everything.”