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The Independent serves up the prize of a lifetime

Nick Bollettieri, the world’s most famous tennis coach, returns to The Independent next week with his fantastic daily column for the duration of Wimbledon fortnight. Bollettieri’s Florida tennis academy is best known as the hothouse where a string of Grand Slam champions have been trained, from Andre Agassi and Monica Seles to the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova, and his insights from more than 50 years in coaching are not to be missed.

Bollettieri’s renowned academy also caters for ordinary tennis fans who want to improve their game. In Nick’s Independent column during Wimbledon 2007, he ran a predictions competition for readers to forecast results at the Championships each day. The prize was a week’s tuition at Nick’s academy (flights excluded). A similar competition will run throughout the 2008 tournament. Read Nick Bollettieri’s columns from Monday for details on how to enter. 

Last year’s winner was reader Rachel O’Reilly, a keen recreational player, and below she describes what happened during her week-long break in tennis paradise, taken towards the end of last year.

MY BOLLETTIERI ADVENTURE by Rachel O’Reilly

Could I live with the intensity of a professional five-day training programme at Nick Bollettieri’s academy? Would I be so knackered at the end of the first day that I’d have to give up and go home? And, almost as importantly, which stars of the game might I see meandering around campus in Bradenton, Florida, when I went!

The answers? a) Yes, eventually. b) Almost but not quite. And c) You name it, from Maria Sharapova to Nicole Vaidisova on the practice courts to Max Mirnyi doing laps up and down the pool outside my window.

The questions went through my mind on the day that I found out I’d won the predictions competition to spend a week at the academy. Nick ran the competition in his column during Wimbledon fortnight. He wanted readers to predict the winners of particular matches each day, and also say how we thought our “picks” would win.

My day job suggests I had an advantage. I’m a performance analyst with Sport England, based in the West Midlands. But in fact my work is at the other end of the sporting spectrum from the Grand Slam circuit. I research the reasons for low participation in sport amongst the adult population, and help to find ways to ensure effective investment decisions and greater adult participation in community sport.

My predictions, therefore, were based less on insider information and more on my love of tennis. I’m 31, and have been playing, recreationally, since the age of 14. For the last five years I’ve been playing club-standard tennis, and I have an ITN rating - on the International Tennis Federation scale - of 4 to 5. On this scale, 10 is basic and one is world level, or professional.

Being 4/5 means somewhere between high intermediate and top club level, and the course I chose at Bollettieri’s was the Pro Max, designed for pro players, so I was slightly worried about the standard of tennis required. I could have chosen a lower-level course, and there is a wide range available. But I wanted to test myself. Still, I was also nervous about the level of fitness required to last all day every day for five days on court playing tennis. And the pre-course registration suggested to bring two racquets, whereas I only own one! Prior to the trip I played lots of tennis, spent lunchtimes running round the Birmingham canals in training, and read tennis books including Brad Gilbert's ‘Winning Ugly’. This is a diary of my week.

ARRIVAL

The academy is based within the 300-acre IMG Academy complex. It’s an impressive set-up, with every kind of physical and mental training available, from the International Performance Institute - a gym used by NBA and NFL stars among others - to the mental conditioning unit, pools, parkland, and the club-house where I stayed. There are 35 hard courts, 16 clay courts and an indoor centre with four more courts. But the first thing that struck me was the atmosphere - the Eddie Herr tournament was taking place, with more than 2,000 of the best youngsters, from 60 countries - including Britain’s Laura Robson, 14 - competing in one of the world’s most prestigious junior tournaments. The place was buzzing with these mini pros and their huge racquet bags. I couldn’t believe the standard of the tennis, so high. But I had other things to worry about, like a 6.30am breakfast, followed by the start of my first day’s training with an early one-on-one coaching session.

MONDAY

7.30am: Half-hour session with my assigned coach, Pedro. Towels, water and fruit all at hand. Warm-up with him feeding me service line balls, forehand first, then backhand, hitting them all down the line. Moved back to baseline. Repeat. Pedro emphasises: “Hit the ball higher over the net, and therefore deeper. The first enemy is the net – the player who hits most balls in the net during a match will be the one to lose the match. Hitting the ball higher over the net gives an increased margin of error.” He also warns I will hit around 10,000 balls this week. 

8.30am: Taken through a series of stretches by Stacey from IPI. Designed to increase range of movement and reduce risk of injury. 

9am: Assigned to a group of four for the morning, with two coaches, one feeding balls, one correcting technique. Drills, then played in turn. We were individually filmed hitting forehands, backhands, serves and watched the video analysis individually on court. We were first shown videos of Agassi, Sharapova, Federer, Roddick and Serena Williams - then shown our own video as a comparison! The coach focused on getting the racquet back early, and good balance during the shot.

1.30pm: Lunch, then full afternoon with the focus on hitting the open stance forehand and backhand and keeping the open stance during the return of serve. The return of serve technique was explained and we repeated the drills for most of the afternoon. Repetition aids muscle memory. 

4pm: Mental conditioning, based around a set of singles I played in the morning. My “mind coach”, Josh, focused on my behaviour between points. “You need to take more time, think of every point as a separate entity and make sure you turn your back to the court after one point has finished and another starts.” I was apparently always in too much of a hurry to get on with the game. Josh explained Maria Sharapova’s between-points routine, how she takes the full 20 seconds and has done the same routine of collecting the balls, adjusting her hair between every point since she was 14. 

End of day: Tired, legs aching, but pleased. Intensive day but a relief that I coped. Early to bed.

TUESDAY

7.30am: Session with Pedro, working on balance on backhands. No balance equals no consistency. The upper body needs to be still when moving. Pedro explained that’s why Roger Federer looks like he’s floating round the court - his legs move quickly but his upper body and head stay very still. Pedro demonstrated this by balancing the racquet on his head and moving from side to side hitting shadow groundstrokes. We then played a drill where Pedro only hit cross court and I only hit down the line. I ran from side to side until completely out of breath and in need of water.

8.30am: Stretching.

9am: Group work on approach shots and moving to the net to finish a volley.

11am: Meeting with Nick Bollettieri along with my friend, Ade, who was also at the academy for the week, on a regular adult programme. I was very excited to be meeting such a legend and nervous because everything I’d read suggested he didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was intensely watching junior matches from a viewing platform, from where we could also see Nicole Vaidisova - the world No 12 who is based at the academy - at work nearby. Nick was great, very friendly. 

Lunch: followed by viewing of some junior matches. The standard was incredible. Then back to court to work on drop shots, through drills. A coach fed high forehand volleys, forcing us to be aggressive at the net and to try to angle our volleys. It became competitive.

4pm: Feet and legs aching, I went to the spa for my first (of three) all-body massages included in the Pro Max course. The hour-long massage was amazing, the first time I’ve experienced the rejuvenating effect so much.

WEDNESDAY

7.30am: Pedro again focused on a stable base while hitting backhands. He drew a windsurf shape in the clay which I needed to have both feet inside and both feet flat on the floor while I hit backhands. I needed to “feel the court” with the soles of my feet. He then demonstrated how to rotate the body and hips when hitting the ball to generate more speed. This then made sense of all the work on balance and stability. Without a solid base when hitting the ball, any rotation of the body would cause loss of balance and even if I could keep my balance somehow the swing of the ball would be really inconsistent. 

8.30am: Stretching, then we were talked through the cross over step footwork for recovering back to the middle of the court after hitting a wide groundstroke. 

9am: Group work. One person ran out to retrieve a wide forehand and the other person a wide backhand, the two behind shadowed the person in front as they were playing. The coach Jonathon ensured we all remembered to practice the cross-over recovery step and would make us play the shot again if we forgot. He emphasised again the repetition importance to ensure ‘muscle memory’. We regularly swopped round from forehand/backhand/shadow shots and the drill became very mesmerising – for pretty much the first time all week a silence developed and all four of us just concentrated on repeating the drill.

Midday: Nutrition class, talking through a typical day’s diet and how this should be altered if undertaking a lot of exercise. Emphasis on hydration. The muscles can survive on different forms of energy but the brain can only survive on glucose, it was important to keep the blood sugars level high. 

Afternoon: Overheads and serves – the coach emphasising the overhead is the only shot in tennis where your first step is backwards. After the afternoon's play I had a second massage. Almost felt like I was getting used to spending six and a half hours on court. It is certainly an uncomplicated way of living – eating breakfast at 6.30, playing tennis during the morning, eating lunch and resting, playing tennis for the afternoon and then dinner in the evening. After a day on court a very early night was needed and I was asleep by 9pm every night.

THURSDAY

7.30am: Pedro explained I needed to use my left hand more on the double-handed backhand – the shot is mainly a left-handed forehand. I practised hitting left-handed forehands then lightly holding the racquet with my right hand during the double-handed backhand. The results: a much deeper shot and the whole process required a lot less effort than normal. We then worked on swing volleys - pioneered by Bollettieri before becoming a standard on the world circuit - from mid-court. Good fun. Pedro says the secret is early preparation and a very short backswing. I had mixed success but it was good fun when it worked.

8.30am: Stretching, including exercises using dumb bell weights and focused on engaging the core muscles. 

9am: Group work all morning. We finished with a doubles match between four of us in the group – this quickly became competitive. On the way to lunch. We passed Vaidisova having a photo shoot for Reebok by the swimming pool. Later in the stay we also saw Maria Sharapova in practice. She was raised on campus from eight-years old and although Nick is no longer personally involved in her coaching, she lives in Bradenton and works here. Max Mirnyi, another player with a long-term association with Nick - and one of the world’s best doubles players - was also around, and on a couple of days spent ages training in the pool outside our window.

After lunch: Drill work on consistency of groundstrokes. We were again warned about the importance of preparing early for each shot. The racquet needs to be back before the ball bounces. The analogy of attending an important business meeting at 8am was used. There was the possibility of gaining or losing a million dollars. There are three options as to when to arrive – be early, just on time, or be late. Early is a no-brainer. We were told the same principle should be used to preparing for each shot. Had my final massage of the week, and then went straight to a cocktail party for participants of the adult program. The only sniff of a drink in the week.

FRIDAY

Turned out to include the most physically intensive drills. The coach sent us running from side to side hitting groundstrokes out wide until we were unable to run for any more. We were told: “Although you are tired never let your opponent see you’re tired.” The professionals after a five-hour match will play the last point as if it’s the first – they are tired but they never show it. The drill was then repeated with people at the net volleying. The day finished with a game of doubles. At the end of the day we all continued to play on – no one was quite ready to believe it was all over. 

ON REFLECTION

Bollettieri’s is an amazing place that deserves its high reputation in tennis history. The coaching was first class, as expected, and the challenges laid out were appropriately tough. Being able to watch professionals like Vaidisova train on a daily basis has been a unique experience. And visiting in the week of the Eddie Herr was an eye-opener. Somewhere among the competitors there are future professionals, maybe even future world No1s and Wimbledon champions. On Sunday, we even watched a British junior, Laura Robson, age 14, win the 14-and-under championship. She’s highly regarded and one to watch. As for me, I left Bollettieri’s feeling fitter, more flexible, more consistent with my shots and with bags of enthusiasm to work on all the new techniques.    

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