Hall of Fame tennis coach Nick Bollettieri dies at 91

Nick Bollettieri, the Hall of Fame tennis coach who worked with some of the sport’s biggest stars, including Andre Agassi and Monica Seles, and founded an academy that revolutionized the development of young athletes, has died. He was 91.

Bollettieri died Sunday night at his home in Florida after a series of health problems, his manager, Steve Shulla, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Monday.

“When he got sick, he got so many wonderful messages from former students and players and coaches. Many came to visit him. He got videos from others,” Shulla said. “It was wonderful. He touched so many lives and he had a great send off.”

Known for his gravelly voice, leathery skin and wraparound sunglasses – and a man who called himself the “Tennis Michelangelo” despite never playing professionally – Bollettieri helped no fewer than 10 players become world No. 1.

That group includes the Agassi sisters Serena and Venus WilliamsBoris Becker, Jim Courier, Seles, Maria SharapovaMarcelo Rios, Martina Hingis and Jelena Jankovic.

He remained active into the 80s, touring the world to compete in top tournaments and in 2014 became only the fourth coach to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. It was in the same year another of his protégés, Kei Nishikorireached the final of the US Open.

“I forged my own path that others found unorthodox and downright crazy,” Bollettieri said in his induction speech at the hall in Newport, Rhode Island. “Yes, I’m crazy. But it takes crazy people to do things that others say can’t be done.”

Bollettieri Tennis Academy opened in 1978 in Bradenton, Florida, and was purchased by IMG in 1987. IMG Academy now spans more than 600 acres and offers programs in more than a half-dozen sports in addition to tennis.

“Tennis would not be where it is today without Nick’s influence,” said Jimmy Arias, IMG Academy director of tennis and one of Bollettieri’s original students. “His tennis academy, which I had the privilege of growing up within, not only served as the launching pad for many tennis greats, but developed into an institution that has had a profound impact on the development of athletes across many sports at all levels.”

Bollettieri was an educator who would boast that he never read a book, never mind that he majored in philosophy in college and even tried law school, albeit for less than a year.

He was also a skilled self-promoter—one who would publish a few autobiographies—despite detractors dismissing him as a hustler and huckster. The truth is that any criticism could not match the astonishing success of his students.

His teaching methods were widely copied, and tennis academies are spread across the globe today.

“RIP Nick Bolletieri. Besides being the best coach ever, you were so kind to me, my parents and my siblings … that meant more to me than anything else, you had a big heart and a zest for life,” fv. women’s world no 1 Chris Evert said.

Bollettieri’s first student to reach No. 1 was Becker in 1991. Then came others, such as Hingis, Rios and Jankovic.

Just as rewarding, Bollettieri said, were the successes of less accomplished players.

“The fuel that has kept me at the summit is undoubtedly my passion to help others become champions in life, not just champions on the tennis court,” he said. “Nothing makes me happier than when I run into a former student or receive a kind message telling me how I changed their life, that they are better parents, lawyers, doctors, CEOs and people because of that impact , I have had on their lives.”

Bollettieri’s devotion to his players came at a cost. For most of his career, he was on the road nine months out of every year, and he cited his travel schedule as one of the reasons he was married eight times.

Nicholas James Bollettieri was born on July 31, 1931 in Pelham, New York. He earned a philosophy degree and played tennis at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, and was a paratrooper in the Army before enrolling in law school at the University of Miami.

To make ends meet, Bollettieri began teaching tennis for $1.50 an hour, according to the Hall of Fame. More than 60 years later, his fee was $900.

After a few months, he dropped out of law school to concentrate on coaching. At first he admitted that knowledge of tennis technique was not his forte.

“I didn’t know much about learning the game,” he said. “The gift God gave me was the ability to read people.”

Patrick Mouratoglou, another well-known coach, also worked with Serena Williamssaid the tennis family had lost an important figure in Bollettieri.

“Someone who has made our industry grow and opened up opportunities for coaches and players,” he said. “We will remember the very special person you were and will miss you.”

Bollettieri won praise for his motivational skills and shouted when he deemed it necessary. He had an eye for talent and was a visionary in terms of boot-camp training for young athletes living together.

He bought a club in 1978 and students lived in his house. Two years later, he borrowed $1 million from a friend to build a first-of-its-kind complex in what had been a tomato field.

The site now has a boarding school, 55 tennis courts and facilities for seven other sports, including football, basketball and baseball.

Running a business was not Bollettieri’s forte, and he sold the academy to IMG but continued to work there, emphasizing a tactical approach that transformed tennis. He encouraged players to take advantage of modern racquet technology and emphasize power over finesse.

The academy churned out big hitters who relied on their serves and forehands to overpower opponents. That approach worked for Agassi, Seles, Courier and many others.

“In my dreams,” Bollettieri admitted with a laugh, “I say, ‘Nick, you’re damn good.'”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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