More aggressive, dear!

Zachary Leader

What happened to Britain’s men in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon? Twenty-four hours earlier, Tim Henman had beaten Richard Krajicek, last year’s winner and the No. 4 seed. In his first match Greg Rusedski had eliminated Mark Philippousis, winner at Queen’s and the No. 7 seed. Although both Britons (Rusedski was raised in Canada but his mother is British) had already defeated more highly ranked players than their unseeded quarter-final opponents, they were terrible. Henman called his match against Michael Stich ‘my worst experience on a tennis court’. He couldn’t get a first serve in. He stayed back on the second serve and couldn’t get that in either. He couldn’t return. He missed volleys (against Krajicek he volleyed like Edberg). Even his famed composure deserted him: he began muttering to himself; he smashed a racket into his bag in frustration; he sulked. If Henman looked flat, Rusedski looked jittery. He rushed everything. He snatched at his volleys. He snatched at his towel. He ate his banana too quickly. He stalked about the court with cartoonish resolve. When at the end of the match he complained of fatigue, one could see why: he’d been tight as a drum.

Nick Bollettieri, self-styled ‘best tennis coach in the world’, claims he can help prevent such collapses, a view shared (for varying periods of time) by Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Monica Seles, Mary Pierce, Jim Courier, Anna Kournikova and Mark Philippousis, among others. Exactly how, though, on the evidence of this as-told-to memoir, remains a mystery. Who needs the world’s best tennis coach to be reminded to ‘keep your opponent guessing’ or to ‘focus at all times, no matter what’? Point three of the five-point work-out programme Bollettieri devised for Agassi is ‘develop muscle memory on the serve motion, with power not the objective’ (i.e. practise getting the ball in). His strategic advice is no more arcane. Mary Pierce is told bluntly, ‘you aren’t too bright on the tennis court. You might even be, well, unintelligent. So ... do what you do best. Get up on that baseline and whack the crap out of every ball’. Advice which, according to Tennis magazine, confirmed Bollettieri as a ‘visionary of the contemporary game’.

‘What I’m best at is making my players feel good about themselves,’ Bollettieri declares. ‘I try to get to their minds. Then I try to get more out of them than they think they have to give.’ He does this partly by example, by being a maniac. ‘Nick does nothing (that he enjoys) in moderation,’ writes Dick Schaap, the book’s ghost. He’s always ‘working longer and harder than anyone else’, a quality shared by his best pupils. Monica Seles, who came to him at the age of 12, is praised for fanatical dedication: ‘She would hit nothing but two-handed backhands for two or three weeks, then nothing but two-handed forehands for two or three weeks ... She once went more than a year without playing a single match.’ Yet everything she hit in practice she tried to put away, exhausting and infuriating her training partners. ‘She beat up everybody,’ Bollettieri gloats, ‘even my pros hid when they knew I was looking for someone to hit with Monica.’ Such intensity recalls Boris Becker’s training regimen prior to the 1995 Monte Carlo tournament: running in the morning, stretching and gym work, hitting for a couple of hours, three-on-three basketball, one-on-one basketball, 18 holes of golf (for relaxation), more stretching, more hitting. Becker, too, wore everybody out, fraying tempers and reducing Bollertieri’s top young prospects (one of them Tommy Haas, the new German hope) to wrecks.

Becker hired Bollettieri in 1993, when his career was flagging. What made Becker different was that he was a grown-up: ‘a guy who’s very methodical, a guy who’s very neat, who takes practice seriously, who likes to think before he acts’. Most of the players Bollettieri coaches are adolescents, accompanied by monstrous fathers. Agassi’s dad, Mike, an ex-boxer from Iran, ‘hung a tennis ball above Andre’s crib so that he would learn to follow it with his eyes’, and had him swinging a full-size racquet ‘as soon as he could stand’. When 13-year-old Andre arrived at Bollettieri’s tennis academy, he was already, by Mike’s estimation, hitting fourteen thousand balls a week. But Andre and Mike weren’t getting on: ‘either my dad was going to pop me or I was going to pop him, and I was probably going to quit tennis.’

When Seles arrived at the academy, her father, Karolj, ordered that a fence and a canvas curtain be erected around her practice court so that people could not steal his coaching secrets. He demanded free meals, an apartment, schooling for Monica, medical care and orthodontia, a ‘fistful’ of airline tickets to and from Yugoslavia and jobs at the academy for himself and Monica’s eccentric brother, Zoltan (‘whose moods and personality fluctuated wildly’). Mr Seles ‘was not a tolerant man’. Jimmy Arias’s father ‘was not an easy man’. Mary Pierce’s father, an ex-con and ex-mental patient, had a tendency to ‘go overboard’. ‘Kill the bitch, Mary,’ he once commanded from the stands of a packed juniors tournament. (Pierce also once bragged to Michael Mewshaw, the American novelist and tennis journalist, that his daughter was ‘all woman. There’s not an inch of man in her.’) Nick Philippousis, Mark’s Dad, made all these fathers ‘look like pussycats’. In addition to belittling his son in front of other senior players in the locker room – an especially grievous sin in Bollettieri’s eyes, since ‘his rivals should be intimidated by Mark; they should not be feeling sorry for him’ – he ‘distrusted outsiders, hated the media, insisted that everything be done his way’, and never stopped talking.

Bollettieri often likes these fathers, until they drive him away. He’s careful to credit them with developing their children’s distinctive strengths: Andre’s hand-eye co-ordination; Monica’s work ethic; Jimmy’s forehand; Mary’s power; Mark’s serve. The children need a father to please – a father they can please – so Bollettieri steps in. ‘I had to give Andre the praise that his father withheld.’ ‘Mark said that I, of all people, was a calming influence.’ With his own children, Bollettieri’s touch seems to have been comparably sure: all five speak well of him, despite his inability to stay married to their mothers (he’s been married five times). Agassi’s complaint, when Bollettieri split with him over money, was that he behaved ‘just like a father’: ‘With one small effort, you gave me so much to believe in, and with an even smaller effort, you tore it all away. Your letter told me I could have a father/son relationship with you, I would just have to be willing to pay for it.’

Perhaps Agassi’s ex-girlfriend, Barbra Streisand, helped craft this letter, though schlock sincerity is a tennis staple. Agassi may have felt betrayed, but he wasn’t actually paying Bollettieri much. Similarly, when Bollettieri called Agassi into his office at the academy for persistently flouting rules, defying discipline and being threatened with expulsion from a local private school (by the principal, Dr Murray Gerber), Andre opened up to him with his hopes and dreams. ‘I was impressed,’ Bollettieri confesses, ‘I even listened.’ On his way out the door, though, Andre turned and smiled and said: ‘Hey, Coach, Dr Gerber said I had to cut my hair. Would you take care of that?’ Bollettieri did.

Ersatz deep feeling figures also in the break with Becker, in this case over time not money (Becker wanted Bollettieri with him exclusively). ‘Nick gets all the credit,’ Becker announced after winning the Australian Open in 1996, his first Grand Slam victory in five years. ‘This man is responsible,’ he later declared, ‘he gave me the will again, he gave me the motivation, he gave me his eyes.’ But when Bollettieri continued to divide his time between Becker, Mary Pierce and the academy, Becker announced their ‘agreed’ separation – and his attorney played hardball over money. Bollettieri felt cheated, and Becker’s otherwise fanatically loyal wife, Barbara, sympathised: ‘That was wrong, what he did to you, and I hope it doesn’t happen to me.’

Bollettieri makes money from coaching top-ranked professionals, but he also makes money from the less gifted pupils who attend his academy. Agassi and Seles argue that Bollettieri’s dividend from the millions they made under his coaching is the mere fact of his association with them. ‘It was a marriage of convenience,’ Karolj Seles told Tennis about Monica’s years at the academy. ‘We benefited from the facilities, and he benefited from the publicity.’ Once disputes about money arose, so, too, did disputes about credit, especially since Bollettieri himself never played professionally. Bollettieri is frank about the charges against him: ‘that I never taught anyone to play, that I didn’t really know the game, that I coached only players who came to me with great ability and good instincts’. ‘When I first started coaching, I faked it,’ he admits; ‘I bullshitted my way through.’ His defence is simple: hundreds of comparably gifted players ‘never made it on the professional tour, never became champions’; his did.

The academy itself, in Bradenton, Florida, opened in 1978, drawing pupils from tennis clinics and summer camps. At first, half the pupils lived in Bollettieri’s house, then in a converted motel. Students were admitted from the age of seven to 17, slept four to a room and were only allowed phone calls home at weekends. They trained and drilled from dawn to dusk. In 1981, after a fair bit of publicity, some of it involving comparisons with boot camps, the academy expanded and took on pupils of varying abilities. Today, the academy has almost two hundred students and 75 courts; tuition is $30,000 for nine months; additional individual coaching can cost another $10,000. Bollettieri is rich, but would have been richer had he paid any attention to financial management; in the late Eighties, to pay off debts, he sold out to Mark McCormack of the International Management Group, recently hired by Peter Mandelson to raise funds for Britain’s millennium celebrations. IMG runs the finances and Bollettieri runs everything else.

Bollettieri emerges from the memoir as an endearing hustler, vain (about his waistline, his teeth, his muscles, his tan) but comparatively honest, especially about himself. Once, in the Alps, Schaap recounts, when Bollettieri’s leathery tan was at its darkest, ‘a woman stared at Nick and said, “Aren’t you a movie star?” Nick beamed, and the woman went on, “Aren’t you Bill Cosby?” Nick could not have been more flattered.’ Being a celebrity matters to Bollettieri, so does being rich and well-connected. As early as 1967, his referees for a coaching job were Vince Lombardi, most famous of American football coaches, Nelson and David Rockefeller (Bollettieri had been ‘the family pro’) and Maxwell Taylor, Chief of Staff of the US Army. What doesn’t much matter to Bollettieri is education, but then education doesn’t much matter to tennis. Becker and Courier have been spotted reading books (Courier once read Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City during a change over), but successful players rarely finish school, and are among the most poorly-educated professional athletes in the world, not excluding boxers.

For the most part, the memoir steers clear of scandal: there is little here about tanked games, teenage burn-out, drugs, or sex between players and coaches (often a form of statutory rape, given the ages of some of the players). ‘Yes, some of my students missed out on their childhood,’ Bollettieri admits, while also making clear that he never coached Jennifer Capriati: ‘Certainly, I contributed to the practice of 14 and 15-year-olds going off on the road to play professional tennis. I’ll take the blame for that, and the credit.’ Mewshaw, in an excellent book on the women’s tour, Ladies of the Court (1993), claims that women players regularly sleep with their coaches; Bollettieri says nothing at all about this. Though he clearly likes women, money-making and networking come first. He’s also old-fashioned – all women are called ‘dear’, as in the instruction: ‘More aggressive, dear!’ In the world of professional tennis, Bollettieri is as clean as they come. Whether he can make champions, though, is another matter. He might make Henman and Rusedski feel as ‘good about themselves’ as Agassi and Becker. He might even help them past the quarter-finals. Then they’d face Sampras.