How does on reach the biggest stages in tennis? What are the costs?
Not, if you have one in the extreme, you become very unscientific; if you have another to the extreme, you become, all of a sudden, a mechanical man, no longer a human being. – Bruce Lee
I don’t know Nick Bollettieri. I have read his 1996 book My Aces, My Faults. I remember many of Andre Agassi and Jim Courier’s matches and read Agassi’s 2009 Open. I am not sure what to make of the documentary Love Means Zero. I hope there is more to Nick Bollettieri than was presented in this documentary. Granted, the director seems to hope this as well.
There is a story to tell, and two aspects of the story are telling. First, the documentary opens with the sight and sound of a ball machine repeatedly feeding balls to a tennis player. Second, Nick is interviewed at the closed and slowly degrading Colony Beach and Tennis Resort. Each of these images is intentional. Each asks a question:
- Is Nick Bollettieri a mechanical man?
- Is Nick Bollettieri as obsolete as the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort?
The militaristic style of Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy coupled with his own admitted lack of technical tennis knowledge make the mechanism of a ball machine that never stops but also never thinks a microcosm of how life at his tennis academy was. Soon after, we see lines of tennis players walking to courts and lines of players waiting to hit balls. It looks a bit like Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in The Wall.
Secondly, as IMG purchased and phased Nick out of his own academy, his own stature is perhaps a bit like a formerly prominent tennis resort that is in disuse and disrepair. Nick Bollettieri being interviewed while sitting next to a broken water fountain and tennis court in disuse is a commentary on how his approach to training is a thing of the past as IMG likely wants to A. make money and B. avoid losing money from any negative publicity or lawsuits that a militaristic academy may produce.
Becker’s Insights on How Nick Succeeded
Boris Becker at one point says, “Nick Bollettieri never won a tennis match in his life, but he can make you win.” I think Bollettieri’s academy succeeded for two reasons. First, Nick put a lot of talented tennis players in one place, and they pushed each other. A survival of the fittest approach at his academy would lead to juniors playing hard trying to overtake other students at the academy.
The second reason for the his academy’s success came from Bollettieri’s own support, or the possibility of his support, for a student. Players seeking the top wanted his approval, and players at the top basked in and fought to protect their approval from Nick Bolleittieri. From my reading about tennis over the years, every player to come through Nick Bolleittieri’s Tennis Academy lauds his ability to make a player believe in him or herself.
The Documentary Centers on Three Tournaments
Nick Bolleittieri would develop an almost parental influence on his players. This was particularly true with Andre Agassi. Three tournaments demonstrated the sort of relationship Nick developed with Agassi and how this relationship impacted the outcome of each event.
The 1989 French Open saw Andre Agassi enter the draw coming off of a 1988 5-set semifinal loss against the eventual French Open champion Mats Wilander. Agassi faced fellow Nick Bollettieri Academy student Jim Courier in the round of 32. Andre had been a discipline problem at the academy for years. Courier was the “company man” who wore his academy gear around the junior and pro tours, but in 1989, he as a virtual unknown. Nick sat in Andre’s box rather than finding a neutral seat. Courier said, “He had chosen another son.” Courier used this slight as added mental ammunition when he dismissed Agassi in 4-sets over two days. Courier’s relationship with Bollettieri was ruptured and he split with the academy.
Agassi entered the 1992 Wimbledon Championships having been runner-up at 3 majors and having been pummeled in straight sets by Jim Courier in the 1992 Roland Garros semifinals. Michael Chang, Pete Sampras, and Jim Courier had all broken through with Grand Slam titles, but Agassi was doubting himself and his ability to win tennis’ biggest titles. Nick told Andre earlier in his career after a washout in Washington, DC that there “was no expiration date” on him. Nick stuck with Andre, and Agassi eventually hit major pay dirt winning his first Grand Slam title by beating a pair of 3-time Wimbledon champions in Boris Becker and John McEnroe to reach the final. Andre then overcame the biggest server in tennis in 5-sets to take the title. Nick shed tears when Andre Agassi won the 1992 Wimbledon title. This moment seemed quite genuine.
The 1995 Wimbledon Championships took place after a nasty 1993 falling out between Agassi and Bollettieri. Apparently, their professional relationship ended over a dispute about how much Bollettieri should be compensated for his coaching. Team Agassi felt Bollettieri had drawn many paying customers to his academy, camps, and instructional videos through Andre’s fame. Nick felt he should get a set percentage of Andre’s earnings. Nick also broke with Andre right as Agassi was coming to terms with a wrist injury similar to the one that kept Jimmy Connors off of the pro tour in 1990. This injury never came up in the documentary, but Andre facing and uncertain future due to a bad wrist and having his coach of 10-years break with him via a letter was jarring. Worse still, Agassi heard media reports of Nick splitting with him prior to his letter arriving.
In My Aces, My Faults, Nick Bollettieri explained that Boris Becker was the first player to pay him a set salary with bonuses as his coach. Prior to that all of the academy pupils who made it on tour more or less “paid” Nick by growing the client base of his academy via publicity. Becker explained that he liked Nick’s workmanlike approach of starting the day early, always having hungry juniors for Becker to practice with, and getting Becker to believe in himself again. Becker had struggled mightily with Agassi prior to hiring Bollettieri. Yet, Becker never asked Bollettieri how to beat Agassi until the day before they faced off in the 1995 Wimbledon semifinal.
I have now heard this match described by Nick in My Aces, My Faults, Andre in Open, and Becker in Love Means Zero. I learned something new from each account. Andre stated in Open that Becker did not trash talk him and the benefits Nike players got at Wimbledon until after their semifinal match ended. Nick mentioned in My Aces, My Faults telling Becker that he had to keep his slice backhand extremely low or Andre would destroy it as well as telling Becker he would have to show no weakness in his body language during the match. Finally, Becker mentioned in the documentary that Nick told him the only way to beat Andre was to mentally beat him. (To this point, Love Means Zero’s account sounded like standard motivational stuff)
Becker revealed that when he fell behind 6-2, 4-1 (two breaks down in the second set) that he started talking sweetly to Brooke Shields. Becker even blew Shields kisses! He said the camera didn’t pick up on this, but it unnerved Agassi whose level of play dropped. Becker rallied to win the final 3 sets of the match including breaking Agassi twice to force a second-set tiebreak. Becker noted that he won the match despite Andre playing such superior tennis (at least until Becker started flirting with Agassi’s then-wife). Nick noted that he had to tell Becker the key to beating Agassi: mentally breaking him/his belief. I don’t think Nick told Becker to flirt with Shields. I would be stunned if he did. I do think Nick and Becker knew some sort of mind games/gamesmanship would be needed to win that match. Bollettieri seemed to exhibit regret about revealing Agassi’s Achilles’ heel.*
The Director Repeatedly Tries to Get Nick to Reflect and to Feel
Nick Bollettieri is presented in Love Means Zero as perhaps being the least reflective human being alive. He is portrayed as being attracted to success and to quickly discarding players who were not apt to rapidly pay off for him or his academy. Nick Bollettieri has no recollection of parting with Jim Courier in 1989 despite Courier going on to win 4 majors and being the first of that generation of young US-born men to claim the #1 ranking. Bollettieri even claims he cannot remember the names of his nine ex-wives.
The most stunning revelation of the documentary has to do with Kathleen Horvath who still holds the record for being the youngest competitor in the US Open singles main draw. Horvath was poised to become a Tracy Austin or Andrea Jaeger type young prodigy for the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. Horvath’s progress on the pro circuit was more gradual than was perhaps first expected. Another female pupil, Carling Bassett, began to surpass her in terms of notoriety and results. Nick does not recall kicking Horvath out of his academy despite it being etched in the memory of not only Horvath but also Bassett. Horvath’s academy rival recalled it as being particularly brutal.
So how is it that Nick did not remember parting ways with Horvath after treating her like a daughter and promising her the world? That is the question raised by the documentary. Is Nick Bollettieri a bit like a ball machine that just shoots the next tennis ball with no reference to its past and no eyes on its ultimate future? Is he a ball machine with two directives: feed the next ball and find the next star? Does anything outside of these directives matter to him? To a machine, the answer seems to be no. To the man named Nick Bollettieri, the answer is less clear.
Final Take Away(s)
I enjoyed this documentary and was disturbed by it. I think the most disturbing portion of this is late in the documentary when Nick is talking to a female student at now IMG’s academy making promises and boosting her self-confidence in ways he likely did with Horvath, Bassett, Arias, Krickstein, Courier, Agassi, Seles, Pierce, etc.
Yet, there are things that make me not feel as harshly toward Nick Bollettieri as the documentary alone might have left me. Nick seems to have a hard time sitting still. Being interviewed while sitting down over the course of a few days for hours on end is not a good fit for his frenetic energy. Nick Bollettieri will likely not express himself as well as he could in a setting that goes against the grain of his nature. In My Aces, My Faults, Nick shared a number of letters he wrote over the years. These letters struck me as being interesting, insightful, and heartfelt. Nick may need time to pace etc. in order to get his thoughts and feelings where he wants them. Letter writing likely affords him time for expressing himself in a manner a long-form interview would not allow.
I did reach out to the creator of the documentary who saw the questions I raised as being central to his own quest to understand Nick Bollettieri. I also reached out to a former employee of Nick Bollettieri who felt the documentary was a bit harsh in some spots and summed it up by stating that Jim Courier noted that while Nick picked Andre Agassi over him that Nick also got him (Courier) out of Dade City, Florida and helped him get to the pro-tour.
I don’t think Nick Bollettieri is a mechanical man. I do think he has tunnel vision and is very focused and driven even today. The documentary successfully captured feelings about Andre Agassi that Nick Bollettieri has. Nick’s efforts to reconcile with Agassi also preclude a totally mechanized approach to life. Still, I might recommend to Nick that he reach out to people such as Kathleen Horvath in the coming years. I don’t think Bollettieri is obsolete, but what he can still contribute to tennis will likely be tied to his ability to connect his past to his future.
*According to Open, Becker tried these flirting tactics again in a tense 4-set 1995 US Open semifinal won by Agassi. Becker split with Bollettieri shortly after the 1995 Wimbledon Championships because Becker was worried that Nick would start working with Michael Stich, a German rival of Becker’s. Becker broke with Nick in a similarly unexpected manner to how Nick broke with Agassi after Wimbledon 1993.
** Perhaps, Pete Sampras’ dedication to winning broke Agassi’s mental belief in many of their biggest clashes as much as his big serve did.