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Hall of Fame Coach Nick Bollettieri Has Died at Age 91

Legendary coach Nick Bollettieri has died at the age of 91. Photo credit: David Portnowitz
Tennis has lost a legend.

Hall of Fame coach Nick Bollettieri passed away at the age of 91 on Sunday, December 4.

The founder of the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida had recently returned home after a period of hospitalization. Bollettieri was surrounded by loving family and friends when he passed.

Bollettieri is survived by his wife, Cindi Eaton, seven children, and multiple grandchildren.

In a career that spanned more than a half-century, Bollettieri coached 10 world No. 1 players and is one of only five coaches inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

“I’ve coached 10 number ones in the world, but I’ve also helped IMG put hundreds of kids into college on a scholarship. And baby, that’s what it’s all about,” Bollettieri said in one of his last interviews with the International Tennis Hall of Fame. “I believe winning is important…but when you make an impact on a person’s life—that goes on for generations.

“That’s what Nick wants to be remembered for: Making an impact on people’s lives.” Bollettieri’s former players, coaches and fans flooded social media to pay tribute to the coach.

Inspired to coach by legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, whom Bollettieri once billed $17.64 for a tennis lesson, Nick Bollettieri profoundly changed the way the modern game is coached.

Nick Bollettieri created the concept of the full-time, international tennis academy with the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, impacted the lives of thousands of players and coaches and helped make American tennis the land of the aggressive baseliner.

The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy began in 1977 at the Colony Beach and Tenis Resort on Long Boat Key, Florida. Initially, the Academy worked with local students and players. During 1978, Bollettieri and Mike DePalmer, Sr. bought a tennis club on 75th Street in Bradenton. Originally christened the DePalmer-Bollettieri Tennis Club, it grew into the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. Bollettieri’s earliest students—Jimmy Arias, Carling Bassett and Kathleen Horvath—all reached the Top 10 in the world and put his Academy on the map. A full-year’s tuition for opening year was $12,000.

A charismatic, controversial and self-described “crazy” character, Bollettieri was a master motivator, who inspired players to dig down deep and extract the greatness from within.

The superstars Bollettieri coached can fill their own wing in the International Tennis Hall of Fame including Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Jim Courier, Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova and Marcelo Rios. Grand Slam champions including Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Pete Sampras, Martina Hingis, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Mary Pierce, Petr Korda, Marat Safin, Anna Kournikova, Max Mirnyi, Mark Knowles, Amelie Mauresmo, Jelena Jankovic and Iva Majoli either trained at Bollettieri’s Academy or were coached by him.

  Bollettieri was much more than a tennis coach. The Pelham, New York native was a mentor, motivator and dream-maker for players and coaches for decades.

For some, including Jimmy Arias, who helped put the Bollettieri Academy on the map, Nick was a father figure.

“Having moved in with Nick at the age of 13, he became a surrogate father to me,” Jimmy Arias said. “Nick stressed discipline, self-control, but most of all he believed in me. Nick has the unique ability to know what each individual player needs to be motivated. For me, it was praise. The most lasting impression that I have about Nick is simply the feeling that came over you when he was on the court with you.”

Empowered by deep belief, the former University of Miami law school drop-out borrowed $2 million from his buddies to transform a tomato field in Bradenton, Florida into the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. From the former tomato patch with a skeleton staff of 22 at the start, Bollettieri changed the business of tennis coaching building the world’s first international live-in tennis academy that eventually welcomed students from over 45 countries and grew into the IMG Academy.

Bollettieri was an outside-the-box thinker who never backed down from sparring with critics.

“First of all, my Jimmy Arias when he was 12 turning 13, he changed the forehands of the world. I mean Jimmy Arias, he hit the ball by jumping up in the air off both feet, wrapped the racquet clean around his head and came out on the other side,” Bollettieri once told Tennis Week. “Everybody said: “No, keep your feet on the ground.”

“Shit, he was like a grasshopper. And then you get the Agassi’s and the Courier’s and the Seles’ in the ’80s and people were saying: “What the hell is Nick doing teaching swinging volleys?”

“Now the swinging volleys become the biggest shot in the game and you thought I was an asshole!”

Hall of Famer Jim Courier credited Bollettieri for creating the hot-house Bradenton back-court intensity that bloomed champions.

“Thank you for giving the opportunity to hundreds or dreamers like myself,” Courier wrote in a thank-you letter to his former coach. “There are a lot of us out here doing this for a living who would be working elsewhere if it weren’t for you.”

It’s been said there’s a fine line between genius and madness. Bollettieri believed crazy and creative were essential elements to his success.

“I believe that sane people do things they know they can be a success in,” Bollettieri said. “Crazy people do things that people say you can’t do—and that’s me.”

Nick Bollettieri’s passion for tennis, people and life was inspiring and infectious.

If there are courts beyond this world, something tells us Nick is there now spreading the joy and love for the game.