At Nick Bollettieri's Florida Boot Camp, Tennis Is Played Only One Way—to Win

updated 10/20/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/20/1986 01:00AM

Anyone who has seen Nick Bollettieri storming around a tennis court bellowing at his students might think he was an overwrought screamer out of control. Whether roaming the 42 courts of the Nick Boliettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla. or whacking balls at one of his promising pupils, the 55-year-old ex-paratrooper invariably comes on like a thunder squall. "Come on, get inspired!" he shouts to a grim-faced group of girls well into their fourth hour of drills. "Move those feet, ladies! I don't see happy feet! You do laps! Now move, move, move!" Stalking off, he spots a sweat-soaked, 14-year-old boy downing a soft drink. "Drink it later," growls the shirtless impresario, tanned the color of cherry wood. "Now get your fanny back to where you're supposed to be."

Surprisingly, what looks like tennis torture under a manic coach and his staff of 65 seems to work for most of Bollettieri's whiz kids, many of them among the country's top junior players. Past protégés have included such talented young pros as Jimmy Arias, Aaron Krickstein, Carling Bassett, Kathleen Horvath and hard-hitting Paul Annacone, an upset winner over John McEnroe in the first round of this year's U.S. Open. With 180 students, from age 11 to 19, and as many as 20 more on a waiting list, Bollettieri expects to be producing more champions. "Whatever it takes, I do it," he says. "My job is to make them believe they can win."

Although some tennis experts, like TV commentator and coach Vic Braden, think parents shouldn't expose younger kids to the kind of pressure Bollettieri creates, most academy students disagree. "He can't push us hard enough," says Andre Agassi, a 16-year-old from Las Vegas who turned pro last May and later beat fifth-seeded Tim Mayotte at this year's Volvo International. "From your own father or mother, yes, you can get pushed too hard. But from a coach you respect a lot, it's never too much. Competition here is tough, but Nick is tougher. Yeah, sometimes I feel like throwing in the towel, but it's like anything else. It takes discipline." Those who don't have it, says Agassi, "crack up. I've seen them. There's no way McEnroe could survive here. He plays on talent and trains for maybe an hour or so of quality time. We'll do four. So he'd burn out rather than improve."

In the eight years since he opened his 22-acre boot camp with nets, Bollettieri says only a handful of his charges have dropped out. "I'd say we have about three or four casualties during the school year, kids who can't handle it," he explains in a voice made gravelly by 30 years of on-court shouting. "This kind of life is a shock. They're not prepared for it. Maybe they're too young, maybe they miss their mommy and daddy."

For an annual school-year cost of about $20,000—which includes academic tuition, tennis lessons and room and board—most of the students live in the academy's Spartan dorm rooms, attend one of two local private schools in the morning, train in the afternoon and hit the books at night. They aren't allowed to visit in each other's rooms, can't watch TV during the week, must have their lights off by 10:30 p.m. and are subject to unannounced room checks. Cigarettes, liquor and junk food are forbidden, as are weekday phone calls to parents, except in emergencies. "I'd like to know how to run a place with all these kids without discipline," says Bollettieri. "I like a neat, orderly place. That's why I loved the paratroopers. We had an esprit de corps, and that's what I want here."

Not everyone, of course, is ready for jump school. "I can't turn my back and say that some of the kids don't suffer from all this," says Bollettieri. "I'm flexible enough to accept the fact. So I've hired a sports psychologist to help kids deal with life, with their emotional skills. On the court, everybody plays with nerves. You've got to know how. If a kid throws a tantrum, there's a reason. We talk to him, find out his problem. There's punishment, too—pull weeds, run laps—but the main thing is their mental toughness."

One casualty of Bollettieri's gulag approach is Lori Kosten of Memphis, who at 12 was ranked No. 2 in the U.S. in her age division. At 13, she begged her parents to let her train with Bollettieri. "But going there was the worst mistake I ever made," she says now. "I think Nick is the best coach anywhere—a real motivator—but I lost my identity down there. I was the wrong person for his routine. Before, when I was coached by my father, one hour was enough and that suited me fine. I didn't hate Nick—although he can be pretty loud about what he wants—and I don't think his ways were wrong. Besides, how can you criticize someone who's so successful?"

Kosten, now 21 and a junior at the University of Georgia, says pressure and the stress of being away from home at so young an age left her in a state of depression. At 15, she gave up competitive tennis, though she still enjoys teaching the game. "There's so much more to tennis than just hitting the ball," she explains. "I just wasn't prepared for the rest of it." Bollettieri was troubled by the Kosten case and believes that he learned from it. "Now we're trying to help kids have more social activities," he says. "You can't completely offset being away from home, but we're trying."

Though it isn't easy, Bollettieri may be tougher on himself than his students. To stay in fighting trim, the 5'9" 150-pounder rises each morning by 6 to work out in the gym of the $3.5 million waterfront home he shares with his fifth wife, Kellie, 28, and their 3-year-old daughter, Nicole, the youngest of his four children. "Kellie understands my nature," he says. "I've sacrificed my family a lot in the past to reach the top, but I don't think I'd do anything different. I still have to put in my 16 hours a day."

Arriving at the academy in one of his four Mercedeses, Bollettieri whips into action—running staff meetings, taping a lesson for CBS Sports, prowling the courts and barking instructions. "He thrives on motion," says tennis mom Peggy Kessaris, watching Bollettieri punch volleys with her daughter, Kimberly, 13. "But he's more tempered now. He doesn't yell as much as he used to."

Bollettieri wasn't always king of his court. Raised "without frills" in North Pelham, N.Y., within a lob and a smash of the Bronx, he didn't start playing tennis until he was 18. He began coaching in the Army and later, after dropping out of the University of Miami law school, gave lessons at a North Miami Beach park for $1.50 an hour. He eventually co-founded the prestigious Port Washington (N.Y.) Tennis Academy but left after a year. He opened his own dream school in 1978 with a nucleus of 25 talented players. By 1981 a new stucco and tile-roofed complex was built, and the word was out: Bollettieri's drill-sergeant methods worked. Enrollment grew and product endorsements came with it. Today the walls, the windbreaks and even the clothing of nearly everyone at the academy are emblazoned with the logos of such firms as Prince, Penn, Subaru and Nike. The companies supply the academy with a trove of equipment, services and money, which enables Bollettieri to offer extensive scholarship aid and contributes significantly to his $500,000 annual income. Such flamboyant success, he says, is his reward for being the sort of guy who would "pick the lilacs in your yard, go around the back and try to sell them to you."

Well, maybe he is a bit of a hustler. But not, say his defenders, a tyrant. "This place isn't what people think," says Ted Meekma, the academy's executive director. "It's not like a prison. Underneath, Nick really cares for the kids. But if he weren't out there kicking behinds, they might not be giving their best." Bollettieri, pacing the landscaped grounds in the late afternoon, is still restless, still pushing his kids. "Keep pumping!" urges the Great Motivator. "Much better! Stand up straight! Bend the knees! Yeah, all right! You win!...Now, do it again."

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