Best of the Best

An Interview with Nick Bollettieri

Andre Agassi. Boris Becker. Jim Courier. Monica Seles. Serena Williams. The list goes on: if you’ve heard of a tennis player, chances are Nick Bollettieri trained them. He is indisputably among the world’s greatest coaches, with 10 number-one singles players and a total of 150 Grand Slam titles amassed by his students. His principles are simple and profound, and applicable far beyond the world of tennis, to every human undertaking.

Hall of Famer Nick Bollettieri is the world's greatest tennis coach.

Courtesy Photo. Nick Bollettieri is one of the world’s greatest tennis coaches.

Octavian Report: What is the secret, in your view, to your success?

Nick Bollettieri: The secret to me being successful is saying thank you to critics and doing what my grandmother and father said: let the results speak for themselves, and never argue with a critic. I had so many critics it would sink a battleship.

OR: Why do you think they were wrong?

Bollettieri: I never even thought that. I didn’t think whether they were right or wrong. I just did what I thought was right and let the results speak for themselves. If I thought why I thought they were wrong, I would never be where I am. So I never gave it any thought. I just moved on. What you want to do is evaluate what the critics say and if there’s anything positive, then you should utilize it in what you’re doing. That will make you better. But to take time out to fight the critics — my gosh, I would have been up 48 hours in a 24-hour day.

Also, remember something: I did something nobody else ever did and that’s why people jumped on it. They didn’t have any idea that anybody would try to do what I did and take kids away from their homes and put them into a school and work them. We were totally opposite of the normal way of bringing up children.

OR: How did you come up with the idea for your training academy, the NBTA?

Bollettieri: I came up with the idea, first of all, from my military background. I was a volunteer in the paratroopers and we all thought we were special and we could do whatever was in front of us and never gripe and never say, “I can’t do it.” Then, when I began having summer camps and putting good kids together at the same place, I said, “Holy mackerel, this thing might work.” And then I went on and started the academy. But it came from my military discipline, of being in an organization made up of volunteers, that we wanted to be the best. And that’s how I built it.

OR: How did you originally get into tennis?

Bollettieri: By accident. My uncle through marriage, John Lightfoot, in my junior year in high school during the summer, said, “Why don’t you hit a few tennis balls?” I said, “I don’t know how to play tennis.” Well, I played with him, I kind of liked it, and then next summer I hit more balls with him. I did quite well and, being a fairly good athlete, I made the tennis team at Springhill College, in Mobile, Alabama.

OR: Do you think you’re a better coach because you weren’t on the tour?

Bollettieri: Even though I wasn’t on the tour as a player, God gave me the gift to be able to evaluate people by looking at them. So I was on the tour as a coach, and I observed people and styles and characteristics. That’s the greatest gift that I have. That’s why Nick is who he is: because I was able to read and learn that there are no two individuals the same. I treated my players individually, not as a whole. Now, there are certain things that everybody does. But then there are idiosyncrasies that make that person special. And if you learn those things, you have a chance to get better results.

OR: How can you tell someone’s going to be a champion?

Bollettieri: Well, I was pretty lucky in the beginning because we only had about four or five countries really playing. So when I saw Agassi, I knew right away he had tremendous eyes to pick up the ball and hands. When I saw Monica Seles, she hit the ball in a different style: standing on top of the baseline and hitting every ball up in her eyes with both hands and both sides. With Courier, he was a bulldog: he would work physically. And I was able to say these kids are going to be great. Today, it’s the whole world playing so you have to be very careful before you say I have a number-one player. Also, today’s game is based on physical makeup as well as mental. Among the top men playing today, the average height is six-foot-three.

OR: Is the biggest change you’ve seen in tennis? That it’s become much more physical?

Bollettieri: It’s much more physical. But there’s also a lot more on nutrition, a lot more on the mental part of the game. Many years ago we just hit the ball. Now, it’s the mental, the physical, it’s the whole makeup. Techniques, strings, evolution of rackets, of mobility: tennis is a movement sport. If you can’t move, you can’t reach the ball.

OR: At what age can you tell if somebody is really talented?

Bollettieri: You can tell quite quickly. My little son Giacomo is a super little athlete: baseball, karate, Kung Fu, anything. He reacts to the ball, he sees the ball, he loves the ball. There are some things that a coach can’t teach. So at a young age you can sort of tell those things; however, you know you then have to have coaching to put that into techniques and oversee the player’s physical development. Remember that Marcelo Rios was the most talented player I had in reference to hands and eyes; now Kei Nishikori is the same. They just were born with hands and eyes that are unbelievable.

“The secret to me being successful is doing what my grandmother and father said: let the results speak for themselves.”

—Nick Bollettieri

OR: Nick, you’re one of the world’s great motivators, correct?

Bollettieri: Yes, sir.

OR: So what’s your secret there? And how much do you think that’s been part of your being able to coach people so successfully?

Bollettieri: Well, I believe that’s one of the greatest things. I recently gave a TED talk and it was all about dealing with children. I believe the gift that God gave to me was able to make people feel they could do the impossible. I had a way of talking to them that inspired them to think: hey, I can do it. I don’t think you can teach that. I’m a positive person, I’m positive in life, I never gripe, I deal with the cards I’m dealt. I don’t look at a clock. I also learned something: you cannot make it today without a team. It’s all about teamwork. If you look at the Blue Angels flying airplanes, it’s all about teamwork and trust. God gave me the ability to be able to relate that. As Boris Becker put it, Nick is a genius because he’s able to tell you a little thing in simple language and walk away. Every student is different.

OR: Who was the best player you think you coached, if I can ask you?

Bollettieri: I would say the most talented player was Marcelo Rios. But he didn’t reach his potential. He sat at number one for two weeks. Why? He didn’t appreciate players, he didn’t appreciate the audience, he didn’t appreciate children waiting hours to get an autograph, and so he did not respect the sport. The players thought he was a complete ass. But he had talent and worked hard. And in the end he was only number one for two weeks. So talent alone doesn’t make a champion. It takes more than that.

OR: Who do you think is the best player ever?

Bollettieri: When you look back in time, almost every player had some sort of weakness. I cannot find a weakness in Novak Djokovic’s game — no weakness at all. Three or four years ago, they thought he didn’t train. Then he went to a nutritionist and took the gluten out of his diet and now, to me, he moves the best, he can hit the drop shots, he’s got a good serve, he’s got a good return, he’s got fantastic ground strokes. To me, he’s the most perfect player without a weakness in the history of the game. I didn’t say the best player because he doesn’t have the same Grand Slams that Federer and Sampras have. But if he continues playing, it’s going to be hard not to put him in among the best of the best.

OR: Do you think someone like Sampras, or even some of the older players, would be as competitive as they were during their careers if they were playing now? Or is it just the physical characteristics of a player that allow him or her to dominate?

Bollettieri: I think it’s the time that you’re born in and what’s going on. Today it’s the whole world playing. Today it’s the big athlete; if I had Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and some of these female soccer players, hell — I’d give you another champion. You’ve got to have some athletic ability today. Size and movement and physical strength are all big parts of the game today.

OR: What do you view as the high point of your career?

Bollettieri: I think the high point of my career is doing something nobody else ever did. This started at the Colony Beach Hotel, with having kids live in my house. But you need support, you need believers, my boy, and I was lucky to have those. That’s why I was able to help people.

OR: That goes back to the teamwork concept.

Bollettieri: Without a team you can’t make it. For instance, on my website NickBollettieri.com, the Blue Angels let me use a video: two jets coming at each other at a combined speed of 1000 miles an hour — and then turning away at three feet from each other. That’s trust. That’s teamwork. That’s what it’s all about. It’s the mechanics making sure the plane flies, it’s the people who give the pep talks, it’s the whole damn thing. And remember, the Blue Angels, when they put on their shows, are videotaped and then they go into a room and re-play those videos and they’ve got to speak up where they didn’t do things the way they should have done them. So it’s a team effort that makes it possible for the person to reach their potential.

Remember something: nobody in the history of sports said it better than a gentleman who helped me get started in my summer camps. He said, “Nick, you belong with children.” He said also, “My team’s never lost, we just ran out of time.” Vince Lombardi, voted the greatest NFL coach in the history of football, that’s what he said to me. And you put this down: parents today should not judge their children on just results, they should judge their children on effort. If they put one-hundred-percent effort and still lose, they’re a champion.

Parents today, their first words they ask when their kid comes home from school are: did you pass, did you get an A, did you win your match, did you throw a touchdown? Instead of doing what my grandmother did: hey sonny, bene qua, were you a good boy today, did you try, did you do everything the teacher said? Yes, grandma. Good boy, go out and play. That’s how my grandmother greeted me. Parents today say: do you know your father is working two jobs for you to take lessons? We put a mortgage on the house, how could you lose? Why do you think these young children call close balls out when they’re in? The fear of telling their parents.

OR: How many people did you have in the U. S. Open in 1984?

Bollettieri: We had very close to 30 people in the main tour at the U. S. Open, yes, sir.

OR: How many top-ten players have you coached over the course of your career?

Bollettieri: I think we had 170 Grand Slam winners and we’ve had 10 of our students reach number one in the world in singles.

OR: Take us, for one second, through your personal fitness routine. How do you keep in such great shape at 84 years old?

Bollettieri: I do this by discipline. I’m up very early, I lay down on the big rubber ball, I do my sit-ups. I do periodic workouts at the gym, light weights, but I do a lot at home with rubber bands. And a multitude of sit-ups. I watch my diet. I’m very short on desserts, I watch what I eat all the time. I’m still the same weight and height and waist size as I was when I played football. 153 pounds, 32-inch waist, that’s it. And why? Because I look in the mirror. I tell people that I feel special and then I go out and try to do special things and that’s why our website is different than anybody else’s. It tells all about these things plus tennis and why IMG is still the best in the world. This is because we keep on adding more facilities and learning how to do the job we do far better than we did it 10 years ago. That’s why IMG is still the leader.

OR: Could you talk about the program you had with Arthur Ashe and a little bit about your friendship with him?

Bollettieri: Well, many years ago at the French Open in 1987, Arthur and I sat on a bench and Arthur said, “What are we going to do about the boys and girls who never hit a ball?” I said, “Don’t worry about it, Arthur.” I started the Ashe Bolletieri Program with Bob Davis as the director and when we walked into the park in Newark, New Jersey, with the police guarding us and gun shells on the grass, Arthur looked over his shoulder and said, “Nick, are we coming back?” Because, he said, if we don’t come back, we can’t give children false hopes.

We did come back. And right now I’m in a program called Train-Up. This program is being chartered and evaluated and it’s helping children get started. It’s giving them a chance to progress in education as well as status. I’m also heavily involved in inner-city tennis, helping the children in inner cities have a chance to hit a ball, that’s the USTA’s program. IMG is helping the program in Sarasota, Bradenton, and Palmetto giving hundreds of children a chance to excel. I do this very same program at the Nicollet Tennis Center in Minneapolis. I’ve been doing that for 13 years. That’s where it is. I’m not going to stop.

Remember, you never stop learning. When you stop learning, it’s time to go back to school. Children today need help, they’re confused. The world is full of drugs and alcohol and nobody cares for those children who have no hope. That’s where we’ve got to pay our attention to. Remember, when you’re physically fit you make better decisions. This is why eight years ago my wife and I started Camp Kaizen. We took 40 young girls every summer for six summers through my foundation and studied them to help find out why childhood obesity is running rampant.

OR: Last summer, you were being inducted into the Hall of Fame in Newport. What did that mean to you and what was that journey like? Did you ever think you’d be in the Hall of Fame?

Bollettieri: You know, all I want people to do is go through my track record. It didn’t come easy. It came by people believing in me. I sacrificed my family. On the road 36 weeks a year. I begged, I borrowed to do what I’ve done. When I wasn’t elected into the Hall of Fame a few years ago, that’s okay. My father said let the results speak for themselves. Finally it came true this summer: the results. Someday you’ll see a letter from Roger Federer and Pete Sampras written to me, all framed, saying Nick should belong in the Hall of Fame. What greater gift! Look what Andre Agassi said this summer: if it wasn’t for Nick Bollettieri, I would not be where I am today. Serena Williams, Jelena Jankovic, Mary Pierce, Monica Seles: that’s my reward. People saying I’ve helped them succeed in life.

OR: I think your impact has gone beyond just tennis and I think that there’s no question you are the number-one tennis coach in history. There’s really nobody else who’s come close.

Bollettieri: That’s what I want to be remembered for: for not only the players I’ve coached but giving children hope and inspiring them to think that, no matter what cards they’re dealt, they can find a way to survive.

OR: Great. Thank you, Nick.