1978 : Breaking through the barriers

Jul 12, 2023, 6:53:04 PM

Coach Nick Bollettieri's acts for poor children

No athlete can compare to Nick Bollettieri, who died in December 2022, aged 91, regarding the impact they had on their sport. Even in the latest years of his life, he would never skip his daily stretches, crunches, and light weightlifting before going to bed, as he said in a USTA Foundation event in 2020. Then, he would get up the following day and go on with his life. “My brain works 27/7 towards the same goal –helping people through difficult times and inspiring them to accomplish what they are able to do.” This is how Bollettieri, who was born in New York from Italian parents, worked. A legendary coach, he brought about a revolution in terms of coaching in the mid-1980s through his academy, which was built in 1978 on a 40-acre tomato field in Bradenton, Florida. Most tennis champions of the 20th century were from Bollettieri’s academy, from Andre Agassi to Maria Sharapova, Boris Becker, Monica Seles, the Williams sisters, Tommy Haas, Mary Pierce, Jim Courier, Aaron Krickstein, Jelena Jankovic, Marcelo Rios, and Anna Kournikova. Bollettieri once said his academy had ‘won’ about 180 Grand Slam titles. 32 of his former academy graduates featured in the 1987 Wimbledon main tables. He used to call himself the ‘Michelangelo of tennis’.

The now 600-acre-wide IMG Academy has 1,800 young members from 72 different countries. It has transposed its specific training methods to eight different sports. Over the years, Bollettieri, with his tan and his black glasses, has become as famous as his protégés. He would often be asked to sign rackets that he would later donate to the USTA Foundation, which promotes education through tennis. In 2018, he also raised funds through the Raise a Racket for Clean Water operation launched by the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), which fights for sea protection in the Florida Bay. The day he passed, the USTA foundation posted: “Equally as important as Bollettieri’s contributions to professional tennis was his understanding of the good that the game could do at the grassroots. […] Bollettieri frequently was a guest of honor at the USTA Foundation’s fundraisers, and charity tennis events and clinics — the proceeds going towards supporting the USTA Foundation’s National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) network, a group of nearly 300 non-profit organizations around the country that provide free or low-cost tennis programming and educational support to under-resourced youth.”

When people would ask him about what made him proud in life, he would never talk about tennis; he’d first talk about his seven children, and add that he wanted to be remembered for what made him truly happy, i.e., making respectable men and women rather than champions. Nick was inducted to the tennis Hall of Fame in 2013. A year later, he became the first white man to be inducted to the Black Tennis Hall of Fame (BTHOF), which was created in 2007 for honouring “individuals who have broken through the barriers of race” in tennis, as a reward for his achievements in favour of the Afro-American community. A father of two boys adopted in Ethiopia and one of Arthur Ashe’s best friends, he partnered Ashe and established the Ashe Bollettieri Inner Cities programme which has introduced 20,000 underprivileged children from Sarasota, Bradenton, and Palmetto to tennis. BTHOF president Bob Davis said that “no one in tennis has ever helped as many kids from the cities as Bollettieri.” The ultimate proof of Bollettieri’s class came on 4 December 2022, when his funeral notice read: “In lieu of flowers or other tributes, the Bollettieri family has requested that contributions be made to the Bollettieri Family Foundation, a charitable organization set up to continue Nick and [his wife] Cindi’s desire to assist youngsters in achieving their full potential."