A visionary and innovator as described by one of his original students, Nick Bollettieri had a way of seeing exactly what his students and athletes needed.
The founder of the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, which launched in 1978 at Longboat Key's Colony Beach & Tennis Resort and is now known as IMG Academy in west Bradenton, Bollettieri died Dec. 4. He was 91.
“Without the Colony Beach hotel I wouldn’t be here,” he told the Longboat Observer in 2014. “That was the No. 1 tennis resort for about seven years, and I started my academy there.”
In 1977, Colony owner Murray “Murf” Klauber scheduled an interview with Bollettieri, who had recently been let go from a Virgin Islands resort.
As Klauber told the Longboat Observer in 2014, the publisher of Tennis magazine called him and told him not to hire Bollettieri, which piqued Klauber’s interest. Klauber told Bollettieri he wanted to make the Colony the No. 1 tennis resort in America.
Bolletieri agreed to Klauber’s stipulations, including all-white uniforms with Colony logos, allowing women to start playing at 8 a.m. and morning lessons on Saturdays and Sundays — both unheard of in tennis at the time.
Bollettieri almost had a sixth sense for coaching, with Jimmy Arias, IMG Academy's director of tennis and one of Bollettieri’s original students, calling him the “master of motivation.” The kind of support Bollettieri provided — encouraging to tough love — depended on the kid. For Arias it was encouragement.
Now, with Arias almost in the same position at the IMG Academy that Bollettieri held, he says that was the one leadership lesson he tried to learn from Bollettieri, while admitting he’s not as good at it as his predecessor. “I’m trying to get there.”
When Arias was growing, he says, the thing to do for all athletes was to attend college before becoming a professional. “Nobody turned pro as a teenager,” he says.
But when he was 16 years old, Bollettieri pushed Arias to dream bigger. Going up against the No. 6 ranked tennis player in the world at the time, the match really didn’t count for anything until Bollettieri told Arias, “That’s it, you’re turning pro,” after Arias won the match. “Nick knew I was ready,” he says, noting that those were the best years of his tennis career.
That moment wouldn’t have been possible without the tennis academy Bollettieri built.
“Nick was an innovator,”Arias says. “He had a dream that he wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before in tennis.”
He wanted to build a school for athletes to receive an education while having the opportunity to expand their tennis skills. And that’s exactly what he did. IMG Academy has since become a go-to school and sports training facility, with nationally ranked teams in multiple sports. It's also one of the largest employers in Manatee County.
The academy was focused on providing intense physical training, total immersion and ongoing competition, the release from IMG states. Throughout his career, Bollettieri coached 10 of the world’s No.1 players including Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Jim Courier, Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams and Serena Williams, among others.
Agassi was one of many tennis stars who went to social media to honor their coach and mentor. A Dec. 5 tweet from Agassi stated: "Our dear friend, Nick Bollettieri, graduated from us last night. He gave so many a chance to live their dream. He showed us all how life can be lived to the fullest… Thank you, Nick."
On the academy where Bollettieri made a name for himself, Arias says "it gave us all an opportunity to improve over competitors."
Skills are one thing to be gained from an academy like this, but a lot of the success that has come through those doors really start with the mental aspect of the game. “If anyone put you in a box,” Arias says, “he would prove them wrong.”
This article originally appeared on sister site BusinessObserverFL.com.