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.

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.