Jimmy Arias was already a 13-year-old tennis prodigy from Buffalo when the fast-talking coach at Colony Beach and Tennis Resort persuaded him to move to Florida in 1978.
“School was over by noon and I was able to hit tennis balls for the rest of the day,” Arias said recently. “My other choice was to move to Spain – on my own – and work with the Spanish FA, a bunch of old guys who smoked and didn’t speak English.
“The beach – or Spain? For a 13-year-old it was child’s play.”
The energetic seller was Nick Bollettieri, a guy who never played competitive tennis after high school. Arias was the first non-local marquee talent to join the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. Back then it was just three other juniors, two courts in Longboat, Florida, and a room in Bollettieri’s house. After the arrival of Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, it became the model for teaching tennis at the elite junior level.
Bollettieri died Sunday just a short bike ride from his creation in Bradenton, Fla. surrounded by family and loved ones. He was 91 years old. Everything on the legendary coach’s long and winding journey was larger than life.
If you are a tennis fan, no last name was required. But his was as prolific as they came.
Back then, Boris Becker was the first of his students to become number 1 in the world. Over the years he was followed by Monica Seles, Courier, Agassi, Martina Hingis, Marcelo Rios and Jelena Jankovic. Serena and Venus Williams were both touched by his teaching hand, as was Maria Sharapova, who came to his academy from Siberia at the age of 9.
A total of 10 players who entered its irresistible orbit became No. 1 – an amazing and unprecedented feat. Long before places like the Rafael Nadal Academy and national training centers brought together the best and brightest players, Bollettieri presided over an exceptional teaching and learning environment at Bradenton.
Courier was 14 when he accepted a scholarship in 1984.
“You’re 15, 16 years old and you’re down there with Andre Agassi, Yannick Noah, Johan Kriek,” Courier once said. “You’re a junior, but you’re training as a pro.
“It’s like Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat. Nick flattened the tennis world in a very Darwinian way. He has assembled an ecosystem of the world’s best juniors and brought in some pros as well. He created an industry. Imagine letting the talent come to you and not the other way around.”
It was a simmering cauldron of competition with a handful of future tennis stars — including Courier, Agassi, Arias and Aaron Krickstein — in their high school years in the 1980s. Courier won four Grand Slam singles titles and Agassi eight.
The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, bought by International Management Group in 1987, still operates – under his name.
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In 2014, after a long ostracism, Bollettieri was finally invited as a contributor to the Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island.
Peter Bodo, one of today’s most respected tennis journalists, was able to separate the Bollettieri’s swaggering style from the substance of his ultimate impact.
“He came to tennis as an outsider,” Bodo said, “just one of the legions of Americans who felt almost overnight fascinated by tennis in a new, professional era with all that entails — crowded stadiums, net coverage, branded shoes.”
“His legacy is unique. Bollettieri’s eponymous academy provided comprehensive, industry-level training to dozens of talented boys and girls who not only benefited from expert, holistic training, but also encouraged and challenged one another to get better every day.”
Mary Pierce, winner of two major titles, explained Bollettieri’s extraordinary achievement: “He had such an amazing gift because everyone is so different and you can’t train everyone the same way. That’s what makes him such a great coach.
“He knew how to bring out the best in you.”
Bollettieri was born in 1931 in Pelham, New York, not far from the United States Tennis Association’s sprawling US Open grounds. He was a rowdy player in high school – the extent of his competitive tennis streak. After graduating in philosophy from Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, he served in the US Army.
He attended the University of Miami Law School when tennis eventually lured him away from academia. Beginning in the mid-1950s, he charged $3 an hour for classes at Victory Park Courts in North Miami.
His big break was becoming the director of tennis at the Dorado Beach Hotel in Puerto Rico. In 1978 he founded the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. Mechanically, he was way ahead of his time, preaching an aggressive game, stepping to the baseline and taking the ball early with an inside-out forehand.
The secret of his success, Bollettieri said that year, was communication.
“I think the gift I have is the ability to connect with people in a very simple way,” he said. “Listen, I’m on the [USTA] Board, and they have all kinds of trainers, and they talk about kinetic changes and biomechanics and all that stuff.
“To tell the truth, I don’t s—. I don’t really know all of these expressions, but what I do know is being able to relate to people in a way that fits who they are. That’s the greatest thing I have.”
No one is more dedicated to preserving Bollettieri’s legacy than Arias. Four decades after arriving in Florida, Arias returned to IMG Academy as Director of Tennis, where he oversees approximately 230 student athletes. Today, as parents know from a certain age, things are different.
“Our parents sent us away — there was no protection,” Arias said. “Now it’s not quite as organic – or Lord of the Flies – as it used to be. I think it’s been good for us in general. You grew up very young and had no one to stand up for you. You had to stand up for yourself.”
Like Bollettieri, Arias focuses on the basics.
“Technique is important, but at some point you have to be like, ‘How am I going to beat the guy I’m playing today?'” Arias said. “The only way to do that is to play a lot – and a lot of different types of players. And win a lot.
“Basically I’m bringing back the formula Nick used years ago. It’s the perfect place to test yourself at any level. He brought that to tennis.”