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Nick Bollettieri, Hall of Fame tennis coach, dies at 91

He worked with superstars including Venus and Serena Williams, and started a live-in tennis school that served as a model for modern sports academies

Former top-ranked tennis star Monica Seles, right, helps coach Nick Bollettieri with his blazer as he is inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2014. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Nick Bollettieri, who become one of the world’s most renowned tennis coaches despite having never played the sport professionally, working with stars including Andre Agassi, Maria Sharapova and Venus and Serena Williams while pioneering the concept of a live-in tennis academy for promising young players, died Dec. 4 at his home in Bradenton, Fla. He was 91.

His death was announced by IMG Academy, which evolved out of the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy that he founded in Florida in 1978. The school did not cite a cause.

A fast-talking, tough-minded instructor with a perpetual suntan and seemingly endless reserves of energy, Mr. Bollettieri was only the fourth person to be enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame for coaching, after Harry Hopman, Vic Braden and Robert Johnson. He continued to work as an instructor long after being inducted in 2014, the same year that one of his pupils, Japanese right-hander Kei Nishikori, reached the U.S. Open finals.

In all, Mr. Bollettieri coached 10 world No. 1 players — including Agassi, Sharapova, the Williams sisters, Boris Becker, Jim Courier and Monica Seles — most of whom lived at his academy in Bradenton as children or teenagers. The school was credited with establishing the template for the modern sports academy, in which students go to class for part of the day but spend most of their remaining hours focused on athletics, training to earn a college scholarship or, eventually, go pro.

“The making of a tennis player is a deliberate process,” Mr. Bollettieri wrote in a 2001 essay for the New York Times. “It’s hitting hundreds of tennis balls an hour for four or five hours daily, of squeezing schoolwork between training sessions, of spending three or four weekends each month at tournaments.”

Mr. Bollettieri likened his tennis academy to a factory, and said that its effectiveness stemmed in part from the simple fact that so many good players were brought together in the same place. “You put the good against the good and you get excellent players,” he told the Wall Street Journal, “and then eventually that becomes the best.”

Undoubtedly, his commanding teaching style — he ruled on the court from sunrise to sunset, with assistants bringing him sandwiches so he wouldn’t have to stop for lunch — also played a part.

Mr. Bollettieri had served as an Army paratrooper and embraced the role of courtside drill sergeant, ordering students to run on a nearby beach for infractions that included smashing their rackets or showing insufficient enthusiasm.

“He’ll make your child a champ,” Sports Illustrated declared in the headline of a 1980 profile, “but it won’t be much fun.” The article went on to describe Mr. Bollettieri’s school as “a minimum security tennis correctional camp,” and quoted one of his early students, Rick Meyer, recounting the details of his first lesson with the coach: “I couldn’t believe how he was yelling at me. He wanted me to use the Continental grip. I was eight years old. I couldn’t even pronounce Continental.”

For many players, Mr. Bollettieri was something of a father figure on the court, offering technical guidance on their footwork and tennis strokes — he was initially known for favoring a pounding style of play, relying on a powerful forehand — as well as advice that carried them through their careers. “He’s a great motivator,” Courier told ESPN in 2008. “He knows how to push your buttons, to make you do what you need to do.”

As Mr. Bollettieri told it, his ability to connect with his players not just as athletes, but as people, was his greatest strength, more than any specialized knowledge of tennis.

“I’m on the [U.S. Tennis Association] board, and they have all kinds of coaches, and they talk about kinetic change and biomechanics, and all that stuff,” he told ESPN. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know s---. I don’t really know all those expressions, but what I do know is to be able to relate to people in a manner that fits into who they are. That’s the biggest thing I have.”

Nicholas James Bollettieri was born in Pelham, N.Y., a few miles north of the Bronx, on July 31, 1931. Both parents were Italian immigrants, his mother a homemaker and his father a pharmacist who owned his own shop.

Mr. Bollettieri played quarterback on his high school football team and moved south to continue his education, studying philosophy at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala. He played collegiate tennis for a year — not because he was good, he said, but because the team needed another player to fill out its roster — and joined the ROTC, entering the Army after receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1953.

Four years later, he was discharged and enrolled at the University of Miami’s law school. To support himself, he got a job teaching tennis on public courts in North Miami Beach, where the nets were iron mesh and “my ‘pro’ shop,” he said, “was an old Pepsi cooler jammed between two concrete walls and an umbrella.”

Mr. Bollettieri knew so little about the sport that he would meet with other local tennis pros before each lesson, getting advice on how to teach it. But he was a master promoter — he later called himself “the Michelangelo of Tennis,” to the annoyance of critics who noted that he was only an average player — and began drawing large crowds to his clinics.

After a few months, he dropped out of law school to focus on coaching. His private-lesson rates would eventually rise from $3 an hour to $900 an hour by the time he was inducted into the tennis hall.

Mr. Bollettieri went on to crisscross North America as a tennis coach, eventually becoming the personal instructor for the Rockefellers at their Pocantico Hills estate near New York. During the winter he taught at the family’s Dorado Beach resort in Puerto Rico, where his students included Hy Zausner, with whom he co-founded the Port Washington Tennis Academy on Long Island in 1965.

The business partners soon separated, and Mr. Bollettieri bounced between tennis clubs while falling out with other partners and investors — even as he continued to work with his first star student, Brian Gottfried, who rose to No. 3 in the world in 1977. “He could make you feel like you could fly,” Gottfried told Sports Illustrated.

Mr. Bollettieri began building his own tennis academy after he was named tennis director at the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort in Longboat Key, near Sarasota, Fla. Promising players lived in his house — Mr. Bollettieri maintained strict rules, including no television or radio on weekdays — before the tennis school began using a former motel for dormitories.

The school was sold in 1987 to IMG, led by fellow tennis Hall of Famer Mark McCormack, and has since added a half-dozen sports and expanded into a 600-acre campus.

As the school grew, Mr. Bollettieri continued to teach, with Becker becoming his first No. 1-ranked student in 1991. The German tennis star was followed by top-ranked pupils including Martina Hingis, Jelena Jankovic and Marcelo Rios, whom Mr. Bollettieri described as “undoubtedly the most talented of all” his students. His other Top 10 students included Anna Kournikova, Mary Pierce and the No. 1-ranked doubles players Mark Knowles and Max Miryni.

Mr. Bollettieri’s coaching and travel schedule, including annual stops at Grand Slam tournaments, took a toll on his personal life. He was married eight times, most recently to Cindi Eaton in 2004, and had eight children: James, from his marriage to Phyllis Ann Johnson; Danielle and Angelique, from his marriage to Jeri Sylvester; Nicole and Alexandra, from his marriage to Kellie Benefiel; Giovanni and Giacomo, whom he and Cindi adopted from Ethiopia; and Sean Bollettieri-Abdali, whom he also adopted.

“I was on the road 36 weeks a years,” Mr. Bollettieri told the Times before his hall of fame induction. “That’s a lot of time to be on the road. I actually put the academy over my children, and people say how cruel that is. I didn’t put it over as more meaningful to me, but if I had stayed home, I would never have been what I am today.”

In addition to his wife, Cindi, and his children, survivors include four grandchildren.

Mr. Bollettieri maintained a busy schedule well into his 80s, and was still frequenting his former tennis school in the days before his death. He said he usually woke up at 5:30 a.m., worked out at home and then coached young players, knocking off around 5 p.m. to play nine holes of golf, or 36 on Saturdays.

“When anybody uses the word retirement they become complacent and their life is over,” he told USA Today in 2018. “There’s always another challenge. I ain’t never going to retire.”