When a nine-year-old Brian Gottfried first met Nick Bollettieri back in North Miami Beach in 1961, he thought he was encountering a coach who would help improve his game. Nearly a half-century into their relationship, Gottfried has come to realize the former paratrooper was really giving him a flight plan for life and lessons to fly.
"When I came back from playing on Tour to visit the Academy, I always said ‘I need to go see Nick — he's the one guy that makes me feel like I can fly.’ " Gottfried recalls. "That's something that as coach is really critical: to help the player develop a passion for the game."
The coach and his former player reunited this week as Gottfried, who reached a career-high rank of No. 3 in 1977, has signed on to serve as a coach at the IMG Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida. He will spend one week per month at the NBTA working with every student in the tennis program.
"It is fantastic to have Brian back at the Academy," said Bollettieri. "He was one of my first students, and his in-depth expertise of tennis will have a tremendous effect on every single one of our students. I can’t wait to work with Brian once again."
An All American at Trinity University, Gottfried won the 1975 and 1977 French Open doubles titles with Raul Ramirez. In 1977, Gottfried reached 15 finals, winning five titles. He concluded his career with a 677-321 singles record, capturing 25 titles. Gottfried posted a 602-245 doubles record with 54 career doubles titles. A true tennis ironman, the 57-year-old Gottfried remains so fit, he spends several hours on court practicing with top juniors and was the practice partner Todd Martin used when preparing for his Outback Champions Series season debut in Boston last month.
Tennis Week caught up with Gottfried for this interview.
Tennis Week: Brian, do you remember how you first met Nick and how he started coaching you?
Brian Gottfried: Believe it or not, I've been around so long I started with Nick in the pre-Academy days. I started with Nick when I was 9 which was in '61. He would be a private pro at clubs in the summer time and in the winter he'd teach in Puerto Rico. In the summer he'd teach in Ohio and New York and other places. Back then we did things we probably wouldn't do today. I grew up in North Miami Beach and Nick was the pro at the club there. He saw me play and asked my parents if I would be interested in coming to live with him during the summer and they agreed, which is something parents probably wouldn't do these days, but my parents agreed to it. That was the start of my time with Nick.
Tennis Week: How does it feel to return to the Academy and work with Nick and what are you most looking forward to about this partnership?
Brian Gottfried: I'm very excited about being back here working with Nick, who was always a mentor. I have been working with a young girl in Pontre Vedra and it's been a blast. Not to sound corny, but I think working with juniors you have an opportunity to change lives and create habits — a good work ethic, fairness and sportsmanship — that players can carry through life.
Tennis Week: In what ways has American player development changed over the years and how would you like to see it continue to change?
Brian Gottfried: I think it's exciting from an American perspective that the USTA has hired Patrick McEnroe, Jose Higueras and Jay Berger and a good group of coaches, who really know the game and have a real passion for tennis. Everyone looks at clay court development as being a key to player development. I just finished three hours on the court with some of the top 14-year-olds in the country, the world maybe, and junior players here are getting a chance to see the top players in the world who train here. If you stay current in the game, you still learn. My thoughts and ideas have changed over time. I was taught the continental grip, but I don't teach the continental group. Then there are things that we've seen from eras of tennis that go back to 1960 that you can pull in from the past that are time tested and important. From my perspective, the slice backhand is not the shot it was in the '60s when the courts were faster, we all played with one grip and most of us were trying to get to net. But I think there's still room for it in the game as well as learning how to open the court and how to play good defense. I think we went through a time in this country when players and coaches were saying "You can't play with slice, you shouldn't play defense, you should always be on offense." But when you watch the best players now — Federer or Nadal or Murray — you see that being able to adjust on court, being able to go to a Plan B, movement and fitness are all very important elements in competitiveness.
Tennis Week: You won more than 600 singles and 600 doubles matches in your career, which is very impressive. Andy Roddick just partnered Mardy Fish to win the Indian Wells doubles and I often think the Williams sisters play their best singles when they play doubles together at the same tournament. Do you ever envision a time when more top singles players periodically play doubles?
Brian Gottfried: I think the ATP has trying to been do that — encourage more players to play doubles. That approach of focusing on singles probably started back in our era with Connors and Borg who started to play just singles. The Aussies always played singles, doubles and mixed so they considered us wimps only playing singles and doubles. Whether you will see players playing singles and doubles again, I question that. Now guys are using doubles to practice. I think it’s an important part of tennis: besides being competitive it's a great teaching tool and shows you it can help you learn more of an all around game, learn the return of serve, learn to take pace off the ball and a lot of things. On the other side, the players say the game is a lot more physical now, which they say makes it more difficult for them to play both singles and doubles. I don't know. I question that and I think you can do both. Styles have certainly changed though not all the styles lend themselves to playing mid court and shorter backswing shots, which you have to play in doubles. I think you have to make an effort to try to play both and to see Roddick do so well last week it might inspire him to do it more. Back in the olden days players were all copy cats: if saw the top couple of guys do something, I did it. For instance, if a guy didn't play the week before the major then the rest of us would take the week off before a major. So if guys see the top guys playing doubles and doing well, they might well copy that.
Tennis Week: Todd Martin told me to prepare for his Outback Champions Series tournament in Boston that he "hit with a 57 year old" before adding "and that 57 year old was Brian Gottfried." I saw you at the Newcombe Fantasy Camp in Texas and was really impressed by how fit you are and how devoted to fitness and training you remain. What is your training like these days?
Brian Gottfried: Well it's very nice of Todd to hit with me and If Todd would play more with me I would play so you could say he is restricting my training (laughs) in that sense. The question is how much better will I get at 57? I don't know, but God gave me a passion for tennis when I was 8 years old and it hasn't left me and certainly to hit with Todd is a lot of fun, he's a lot of fun and I really enjoy it.
Tennis Week: How has tennis evolved most in the years since you were on the tour?
Brian Gottfried: It's been such a long time. I sit back and I think I just came off the tour it was '84 when I played last — that's 25 years ago. I was coaching and I have finished playing before most of these guys started coaching . There's been such a change in equipment from when I was playing and that has changed the teaching of the game. Players are generating more racquet-head speed, the arm is moving quicker, the body is torquing more than it was back then. Back in the olden days you had to have everything working together to get enough pace on the ball for any kind of penetration and that has changed. The string has certainly added a dimension to it and the amount of spin players can put on the ball. When I watch the pro game today it's hard to imagine that I could ever play with the players playing nowadays from a pace stand point. I don't imagine us hitting the ball that hard. The courts also change the way the game was played. Nowadays three quarters of the year are played on a hard court and almost the entire year the speed of the surface is slow — the grass is now slower than it was back when we played. When we played, the first five months of the year were on an indoor carpet, then there were six weeks on clay leaing up to the French Open and three months on grass leading up to Forest Hills and two months on indoor surface. Our courts were a lot quicker, the balls were a lot quicker so you were better off playing with one grip and getting into net as fast as you could. The change in equipment and surfaces have changed how the game is played now. I think now some of the best men’s tennis is played on grass because the rallies are longer and you just see a little bit of variety. My first year playing Wimbledon, the balls were so light and break points so few, the crowds would gather around a court when people heard someone had a break point.
Tennis Week: What have you learned from Nick and how has your relationship with him shaped you and your outlook? Should Nick be in the Hall of Fame?
Brian Gottfried: Talking about my relationship with Nick and his length of time in the game, anybody that steps out and does something original is going to have their proponents and critics and certainly Nick has had that along the way. I always felt his enthusiasm no matter what level of the game. When I came back from playing on Tour to visit the Academy, I always said ‘I need to go see Nick — he's the one guy that makes me feel like I can fly.’ That's something that as coach is really critical: to help the player develop a passion for the game. Why he isn't in the Hall of Fame is something I don't know — I'm not even sure how that process happens — but Nick has certainly been innovator in the sport. He was a paratrooper that started at a local tennis club who then created the industry of mass teaching. Nick has singlehandedly touched more tennis players than anybody so there's a lot to that. And I'm one of those that he's touched. Certainly from my parents I learned to work hard, respect my elders and many things that I carry with me to this day. I came from a pretty liberal household, but when I lived with Nick things were a little stricter. He taught me how to grow up on and off the court. You spend six hours a day with Nick on court and he taught you how to conduct yourself and then at home eating all the food on my plate, to say please and thank you and, as my parents taught me, to treat people with respect. I'm old enough now — and I know it sounds corny to say, but it's true — if I can touch someone's life like Nick touched mine then that's very exciting and fulfilling to me.