Commentary

The old man and the court

Updated: August 17, 2011, 9:36 PM ET
By Tim Struby | ESPN The Magazine

"What do you think of that?"

It's 5:30 in the morning and Nick Bollettieri, as chipper as a candy striper, is pointing to his biceps. I have to agree it's pretty impressive for an 80-year-old, but who can verbalize at this ungodly hour? No matter. The question is more on the rhetorical side. "Last night I did six laps in the pool," he continues. "Two hundred leg kicks. In bed by 10:45. Then here at 5 a.m." Here as in the IMG Performance Institute gym, next door to the tennis bubble on the IMG/Bollettieri Academy campus. As he stretches, pushes and pulls, Bollettieri yaps about his busy life. "Not enough hours in the day," he says. His laundry list of commitments includes spending time with his eighth wife, Cindy, and their 6-year-old adopted Ethiopian son Giovanni. There are the magazine articles he has to write and USTA videos he has to shoot. Dinners with old pals like Lou and Johnny, charity appearances, tanning, church, polo matches, skiing, exercise and TV spots. And golf. Can't forget about golf at the El Conquistador Country Club.

[+] EnlargeBollettieri
Prince SportsAs long as Nick Bollettieri remains upright, you can bet his first priority will remain coaching.

Of course, there's also that little coaching gig he's got. From 6 to 6 (with an hour for lunch), six days a week, he marches -- Bollettieri never strolls -- over the four blue hardcourts that serve as his de facto office. Whether it's groups, individuals, regulars or one-timers, the old man has at 'em. Barking orders. Correcting bad habits. Cracking jokes. Encouraging. Molding.

This baffled me. Why is Bollettieri, grandfather and octogenarian, at work before dawn? Why is a man who's coached 10 No. 1 players, who's an international star and essentially created the sports-academy complex industry, still punching a clock six days a week? I understand a guy like Bollettieri, a cross between Vince Lombardi and Joel Osteen, might not want to spend his golden years on the couch watching "Law & Order" reruns, but what could possibly motivate him to pound the pavement (literally -- he never sits when coaching) for 11 hours a day? "I don't think anybody else could do a workday like mine," says Bollettieri. "Unless it was a necessity."

Yes, a need. Well, fulfilling that starts at 6 a.m. in the tennis bubble, where Bollettieri oversees a half dozen of advanced girls ages 10-15. Although he's lost some of what former student Jim Courier calls his "paratrooper mentality," Bollettieri still cracks, albeit a more avuncular, whip. "Move to a block, c'mon!" "Enough with the talking." "Ashley, who'd you lose to yesterday? Kevin?" he laughs. Among the flocks stands Victoria Duval, a rangy, bespectacled 15-year-old whose balls zip along the allies like hollow points. A native of Haiti, recently reached the Junior's quarterfinals at Wimbledon. "Vicky's one of the best young players," says Bollettieri with the pride of a doting father. "She's gonna be my 11th."

Bollettieri claims that coaching another No. 1 is no longer a driving force in his life. That he thinks about it only occasionally. But while Bollettieri's hair has thinned and his paunch widened (his tan, however, remains as preternatural as ever), no one close to him believes that his need to prove himself has shrunk. "Finding another champion is what keeps him going," says a close family member. "His personality and drive haven't mellowed." Bollettieri's "I'll show you" persona derives from his longstanding sense that despite all he's accomplished, all he's done for tennis, that the tennis establishment still sees him as little more than a successful salesman from the wrong side of the tracks. He's got a point. Example A: Last year's snubbing at the hands of the Tennis Hall of Fame voters. "The establishment still does view him as an outsider," says Courier. "But I'm not sure Nick doesn't like it that way." True. Bollettieri converts criticism into fuel. Uses his detractors as motivation. If he never found No. 11, he'd die a happy man, but while he's still upright, there's no way he'll stop searching. Courier likens his former coach to the late Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records (he helped launch the careers of Otis Redding and Led Zeppelin, to name a few) and who, in his 80s, was still frequenting New York City nightclubs in search of the next great act. "This is who Nick is," says Courier. "He still wants to find a diamond in the rough, polish it and show it to the world."

At 8 a.m., Bollettieri greets pupil Karam Hinduja. A 20-year-old student at Columbia University, Hinduja has taken a six-month hiatus to train full time at the academy with dreams of a professional career. It's an eight-hours-a-day schedule that includes daily private sessions with Bollettieri. Hinduja trains diligently. He gives everything he's got. His forehand is smooth and he employs a sharp one-handed backhand. A solid overall player.

As far as a pro career, however, the Columbia senior is more cubic zirconia than Tiffany Yellow. Even Bollettieri's five decades of experience will not be enough to transform Hinduja into much more than a country club contender. But the academy wasn't formed as a 501 c3, and long before he picked up a tennis racket, Bollettieri had business on his mind. "Everyone in my family was book smart," he says. "But I was different. I was always hustling." He was born and raised in Pelham, a Westchester suburb 30 minutes outside of Manhattan. Although bankers and lawyers lived on the south side of the tracks, his neighbors in the north -- black, Irish, fellow Italians -- were plumbers, small business owners and cooks. "I didn't know anyone as driven as me," he says. "As a kid I sold everything -- grapes, flowers I picked from neighbors' yards, lemonade. I even took candy from my father's drug store and sold it to kids after church."

Although his profit margins have ballooned (his going rate for private instruction is $900 an hour), Bollettieri has retained the mindset of a North Pelham kid hocking Bazooka Joe. "I still consider myself a hustler, a promoter," he says. "But lots of successful people hustle. They promote themselves. Scientists. College coaches. The key is that you have to deliver." Deliver he does. For one, despite detractors of Bollettieri's Barnum-esqe style of self-promotion, few can dispute his teaching talents. Bollettieri can take a brand-new student and, in the time it takes to mix a mojito, he'll spot the tiniest of timing problems or note that the grip has to be changed a fraction. But he also tackles the intangibles. "The fact that he's worked with 10 No. 1s speaks volumes about his versatility," says The Tennis Channel's Joel Drucker. "He infuses a distinct sort of confidence in players." Two, Bollettieri might be a hustler, but he's no huckster. "He's brutally honest," says one parent. "There are no false promises. No unreal expectations." If a student wants to be a pro but has talent only to play in college, Bollettieri will break the news. It's never easy, but he doesn't get paid to lie.

If Duval represents the glory, and Hinduju a steady paycheck, then his next pupil, a short, soft-spoken 10-year-old named Greer Glodjo, personifies Bollettieri's love of the game. Not "the game" as in tournaments and rankings, but The Game -- tennis in its purest form. A perfect forehand follow-through. A ball hitting a racket's sweet spot. Footwork, balance, timing, form. See the academy, the accolades, the recognition: They all pale in comparison to Bollettieri's love of The Game. And in Glodjo, he's found the perfect muse to express his love: In 55 years of coaching, the 10-year-old is the first child that Bollettieri had ever taught tennis from scratch.

As Greer practices her serve, Bollettieri stands behind her at the baseline. With arms folded and a slight forward lean, he watches her intently, like a modern-day Michelangelo gazing at a block of marble. "That one you pushed," he chides. "The other one you hit the double fault. C'mon." Greer tries again, this time firing two balls into the far corner of the service box.

Bollettieri's silence speaks of approval. "Nick's an artist," says Greer's father, Arman, who sits courtside through every practice. "And he's committed heart and soul to Greer." In artistic terms, until he took on Glodjo, Bollettieri hadn't had an opportunity to create a complete masterpiece. All the other No. 1 players had arrived in Bradenton with formal training. Not Glodjo. "Greer held the racket upside down when I first met her," says Bollettieri with a laugh. "She's never had another coach." These days, five hours a day, five days a week, Bollettieri develops what he calls her "total game." Every facet from the ground up. He's even gone as far as to keep her out of junior tournaments, instead focusing The Game. "It's like taking someone who's raw clay and forming it in his own way," says Drucker.

[+] EnlargeNick Bollettieri
Getty ImagesNick Bollettieri has helped coach 10 players to the No. 1 ranking -- including Andre Agassi.

Two-and-a-half hours later, a tired and sweaty Greer flops into a folding chair beside her father. Greer's goals, at the moment, are relatively modest. Representing Canada in the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Playing tennis at Duke University. More than that? Bollettieri's remains cautiously optimistic. "The future depends a lot on the physical," he says, pointing out her size-9 Adidas. A 9 men's. "As she gets bigger and grows to what they're predicting [5-foot-11 or 6-0] and her speed and agility catch up, there's a chance for something big."

Following a tuna fish sandwich and a bowl of chili at his favorite lunchtime haunt, the South Philly Cheese Steak café, Bollettieri returns to the blue expanse of the tennis bubble. He has repeat sessions with Greer and Hinduju. He meets and greets a handful of players from the adult tennis program. He spends an hour with Georgi Djokovic, the 15-year-old brother of Novak, the world's reigning No. 1 player. Finally, for his last private lesson of the day, Bollettieri finds a shy young English boy and his parents, who, from their Ed Hardy outfits, gaudy jewelry and heavy east London accents, look like descendants of the Kray twins. No problem. Bollettieri's dealt with all sorts through the years. "Hiya, James," says Bollettieri. "Let's try this."

Crouched in a linebacker's stance, Bollettieri gently feeds balls to the boy. Within thirty seconds, it's obvious that James is not only not a diamond, but he's even light years away from a cubic zirconia. Bollettieri, however, does not lose interest. Doesn't focus any less. It's one of his greatest traits (surpassing even his remarkable tan) -- whether he's working with a future French Open champion or a kid simply trying to get the ball over the net, Bollettieri never mails it in. He's doesn't get distracted or bored or interrupts a lesson to answer his cell phone. He gives the entirety of himself the entirety of the time. Is it manners? Habit? No. Bollettieri behaves as such because of his greatest need. At the age of 80, he still needs to matter. To remain part of people's lives. "He really has a desire to stay relevant," says Drucker. "He wants to be part of the conversation, he needs to have meaning." And when students finish a lesson with Bollettieri, not only do they depart a better player, but they take a bit of Bollettieri with them. He has made a difference. He remains relevant.

At six o'clock sharp, James' lesson -- and Bollettieri's work day -- ends. He chats with the parents. Suggests some fitness. Running. Maybe jumping rope. "He's improved already," says Bollettieri. "He should just remember what I told him." James' father thanks Bollettieri. Group photos are taken. Then Bollettieri turns to James, leans over and shakes his hand. The boy beams. "Thanks, James!" says Bollettieri, as peppy as he sounded at 5:30 that morning. "I wasn't too mean, was I?"

Tim Struby is a contributing writer to ESPN The Magazine.