For the Love of the Game: Saying Goodbye to Tennis Legend Nick Bollettieri

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His contributions changed the sport forever.

This week, words of remembrance and loss are pouring in, as the death of tennis legend Nick Bollettieri hits the news. In 1978, at a time when such institutions weren’t common, he founded the IMG Tennis Academy in Florida. There, he trained countless major players of the last few decades — ones even non-players have heard of: Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, and so many more.

“Nick’s passion, discipline, and perseverance changed the game of tennis, but his heart changed the lives of every person he met,” says Anne White, a former student, Wimbledon legend (partly for her then-scandalous choice of clothing — a skintight bodysuit — at the 1985 competition) and the current pro at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club.

That’s where I met Bollettieri in 2021: He was visiting from Florida and offered to do a teaching clinic for White’s current headquarters. “There’s nothing like this club anywhere in the country,” he told me. “A small gem in the middle of a city with such a storied history.” I was well aware of that, having almost grown up at the club — I told Nick that my father had been responsible for bringing Pancho Segura (one of the star players of the ’40s and ’50s) there as the pro. That, in turn, brought in other stars like Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, and Pancho Gonzalez. 

Speaking of stars, I told Bollettieri I’d read the bio (2009’s Open) of his most famous pupil, Andre Agassi. It included some not-so-kind words about his mentor, his academy, and his training methods. But asked about it, that mentor was frank and open:  “We had our rough patches, but we talk often now, and all is well,” he said. Sure enough, Agassi wrote kind words when he heard of this death. (His Instagram post read “[Nick] gave so many a chance to live their dream. He showed us all how life can be lived to the fullest.”)

Nick Bollettieri’s methods were often considered unusually harsh: Having been a paratrooper, he relished playing the drill sergeant role. There are tales of his issuing tough comments to his charges about everything from sloppy strokes to training habits. But many, like Anne White, adored him — and feel he made them stronger players. That’s why she’d gotten Bollettieri to fly out from Florida, where his legendary academy is now 60 acres and includes kids’ training camps and nine different sports (including soccer, golf, and basketball). Former student Brad Gilbert played with the club members as I watched and Bollettieri shouted out comments from the sidelines. “When you come into the net, you’ve got to go all the way…You can’t hit what you can’t reach.” 

The “students” on the club’s courts were ecstatic. “This was the best day of my pandemic,” half-joked Jill Mazursky. She is the daughter of director Paul and a co-producer of a 2017 documentary, Love Means Zero, about Bollettieri. Whether or not you’re a tennis buff, the film is absolutely a worthwhile watch, and will help viewers fully understand what made this driven, passionate man tick — and have so much impact. He never played the game competitively but made it into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Need I say more?

Michele Willens—once ranked 13th in Southern California, is author of From Mouseketeers to Menopause