It's hard to overestimate the impact that Nick Bollettieri has had not only on tennis but on the entire sports culture.
Before Mr. Bollettieri, tennis was a game played on the local courts with little in the way of a talent development system. Then in 1981, Mr. Bollettieri decided to open an academy in Bradenton, Fla., where kids could go to school part of the day and train nearly every other waking minute.
By the mid-1990s, he had produced so many top players, including Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, and Monica Seles, his trademark focus on a single sport became a blueprint for athletic success. IMG Worldwide Inc., the sports and entertainment conglomerate that bought Mr. Bollettieri's tennis school in 1987, now operates academies based on his model for seven different sports in Bradenton, Fla.
Now 78, Mr. Bollettieri is still molding the stars of tomorrow. He arrives at his eponymous academy at 4:15 each morning. He works out in the gym for 45 minutes, then he starts supervising the first of some 12 hours of daily lessons just after 5 a.m. Ten of his players have reached a top ranking during his career, most recently Jelena Jankovic this month.
WSJ.com spoke with Mr. Bollettieri earlier this month. Excerpts:
The Wall Street Journal: How did you get the idea for the academy?
Mr. Bollettieri: I go back to my time in the service when I volunteered to be with the paratroopers. I enjoyed being with people who wanted to work hard at something and do more than what other people might do. I always believed if you put good kids together good things would come from that. Jim Courier said, "Nick gave us balls, rackets, and damn good players. We went on the back courts and duked it out."
WSJ: Who is the most talented kid you ever saw?
Mr. Bollettieri: I'm working on new book called "It Ain't Easy." There is a chapter in it called "What the Score Doesn't Tell You." I talk about Marcelo Rios, who reached number one at 23. He had talent but he didn't have what you need on the inside to put the talent to work. But if you ask me for the one who had almost everything and was a lefty, and I have to say Marcelo Rios.
He fell very short, because the mental approach upstairs was not what it could have been. The perspective on life, and being humble and being appreciative for what you have been given was not there. He worked his a-- off but he had no respect for the game, the coaches or the other players.
WSJ: How different is the game today than when you began teaching it?
Mr. Bollettieri: It's more physical. The players are stronger. They have worked longer hours in the gym. When you think about 25-30 years ago, it's not that the players today are better, but it's the physical difference, the evolution of equipment, the speed of the court. If players of yesteryear had the same training and equipment and physical make-up, those players would have been a lot better and would have held their own against anyone. Also, the depth of the players today is much deeper.
WSJ: Is the academy system the best way for a player to develop?
Mr. Bollettieri: I don't think that necessarily. It's not only the system, but what Courier and the other good players said is what we have is a lot of good players at the same place. You put the good against the good and you get excellent players, and then eventually that becomes the best.
The variety of the competition gives you somewhat of a benefit, but it is not the only way. Yet the results speak for themselves. Jelena Jankovic is the 10th number one player I have worked with in the world. But Rafael Nadal has done well with his uncle and his support team and he has stayed at home in Mallorca.
I do think the academies should be considered though. Patrick McEnroe, who is doing his academy with the United States Tennis Association, is not saying we need everyone in Boca [Raton, Fla. at the USTA elite player academy], but get the good ones together a couple times a year, and give support to players all over the country. If we have a system in place we'll do well, but you've got to start five to eight years ahead of time to develop the players.
WSJ: Why is the U.S. having so much trouble producing a new generation of champions?
Mr. Bollettieri: You have to have passion and you've got to fight and you've got to have a strong support team. We've got to help people, like the girls that don't have money. I took three girls in January who couldn't afford it. Now the 13-year-old is on Pat McEnroe's team. The 12-year-old is already playing internationally, and the 10-year old is coming along.
We did the same thing in this country with tennis that the Yankees did. We became very complacent back in the '80s and '90s. We had talent by the bucketfuls and then we ran out of the farm team. Look what the Yankees did. You have to have a constant flow of players with good sound techniques and foundations. For those that need funding we've got to help them.
WSJ: What role should parents play?
Mr. Bollettieri: Is it easy? No. The family has got to try to find a happy medium by not setting bars too high or too low. They've got to understand their kids might not be Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi or Monica Seles but that doesn't mean they won't succeed in life.
Kids have to live their own life. It's not easy when it's your child. But the parents have to be told the truth. Your child may be a good recreational player or college player but if you want him to be a pro you better offer them something else. You have to be realistic, but is it easy? No.
WSJ: Would you send your grandson to your academy?
Mr. Bollettieri: My eight-year-old granddaughter is starting to play well. I just want her to enjoy it.
WSJ: Who from yesteryear could play with Roger Federer and [Rafael] Nadal?
Mr. Bollettieri: Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors. There is no doubt in my mind they didn't have any less talent. It just was the training. Same with Chris Evert and Tracy Austin.
WSJ: Why do most tennis players go downhill so young?
Mr. Bollettieri: It's a long schedule, and they are playing too many exhibitions and tournaments. Also, now there are a lot of good young rabbits on the tour. You've got to play well from Round One. When you have that much talent, you have to play you're a-- off every damn tournament.