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“I told several families I was opening a school in Sarasota, offering room and board and tennis. I lined up 20 children ... The only catch was that I had no boarding facilities.”
Thus, in the words of Nick Bollettieri, began the world’s most famous tennis academy.
The year was 1978, and Bollettieri was a 47-year-old former Army paratrooper and tennis-pro lifer who had hustled lessons from Long Island to Puerto Rico to Miami. That fall, he got wind of a teaching opportunity at The Colony Beach and Tennis Resort on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
“Longboat Key, Bradenton, Sarasota? I had barely heard of any of these places,” Bollettieri wrote in his autobiography, Changing the Game. But with no plans in his future, he and his coaching partner, Julio Moros, jumped into his purple Cadillac—“A lot of people made fun of me for the color, but I didn’t care,”—and headed across Alligator Alley.
“We arrived at the resort just in time for a beautiful sunset,” Bollettieri said. “Julio looked at me and said, ‘Let’s settle down here.’”
Bollettieri, after half a lifetime of trying, found himself in the right place at the right time. Professional tennis had existed for a decade, enough time for thousands of kids and their parents to believe that the sport offered, with enough borderline-psychotic devotion, a viable career path. Not long after Bollettieri set up shop—he housed the kids in his own home to start—two future pros, Carling Bassett and Kathy Horvath, began training with him. Just as important to Bollettieri’s future was Bassett’s wealthy father, John, one of the academy’s early benefactors. Soon, Bollettieri had a place for the kids to stay, and a bus to take them to tournaments.
But what set Bollettieri apart was his ability to transfer military-style regimentation to the tennis court.
“I put 20 to 40 students on one court at a time,” said Bollettieri, who was quickly overwhelmed with eager young recruits. “While one was hitting, everybody else was skipping rope, running in place and improving their conditioning. If someone missed a ball, it was push-up time.”
The tennis factory was born. All Bollettieri lacked was a commodity that he could mass produce. He would find it in a 12-year-old from Buffalo, N.Y. who stood just over five feet tall.
Jimmy Arias arrived from upstate New York in 1977. While Bollettieri was housing students at a nearby motel, he put up Arias, the national 14’s champion, at his home on Longboat Key. When little Jimmy leaped up to smack the full-cut forehand that his father, Antonio, had taught him, Bollettieri saw the future flash before his eyes.
“He shocked us all by jumping off the ground, throwing his full body into his forehand and wrapping his shoulder around on his follow-through,” Bollettieri said of Arias. “Add to this his weird grip (a strong semi-Western) and you get a preview of today’s game.”
Antonio’s invention soon belonged to Nick.
“I called my staff over and said, ‘Here’s the new Bollettieri forehand... My other juniors started to imitate Jimmy’s forehand, and it became the signature stroke of the Academy. I believe that it revolutionized tennis and that Jimmy Arias deserves credit for initiating the power game.”
Nick had the stroke, and not long after he had the wand that could transmit its magical properties. While Arias showed off his forehand, Jack Murray, president of Prince, and Howard Head, creator of its new oversize racquet, asked Bollettieri if he would feature their frames in his programs. The forehand and the Prince racquet combined to produce a star who made Nick’s academy a worldwide beacon for junior players: Andre Agassi.
The list of players who have pounded balls and done push-ups in Bradenton reads like a Who’s Who of Tennis over the last 35 years: Maria Sharapova, Monica Seles, Boris Becker, Jim Courier, Kei Nishikori and Jelena Jankovic, among many others. Last year, Bollettieri, a tennis outsider for much of his life, was finally enshrined in the sport’s Hall of Fame at 82. It’s only fitting for a man who has brought tennis, and the way it is taught, out of one century and into another.
Originally published in the July/August issue of TENNIS Magazine. Click here to subscribe.