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Gottfried has lot more than tennis to offer

The cadre of players crowded along the side of the indoor court at the IMG Academy, watching Brian Gottfried hit shots and talk tennis.

If they watched close enough, they could learn a little about the game that Gottfried loves so much. If they listened hard enough, they would not only learn a lot about tennis, but even more about life.

Tennis taught Gottfried much over the years and now the athlete, who played the game with as much grace as success, is sharing his wisdom with students at the IMG Academy in Bradenton.

"Brian has so much to offer," said Chip Brooks, who oversees the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. "He loves the game. He respects the game. He knows the game."

Gottfried is old school. He comes from an era where, except for a few notable cases, sportsmanship was more important than gamesmanship. A time where players knew the history of the game. A time where people, in general, had more respect for each other.

"Brian represents everything that is right about the game of tennis," Bollettieri said about reuniting with one of his original students. "He brings integrity, compassion, and a deep respect to the courts."

He is also bringing an immediate presence. In his first week at Bollettieri's as a guest instructor, Gottfried is busy quickly introducing himself to unsuspecting students who populate the IMG Academy.

Walking the courts, he has seen rackets thrown in anger. Sensing the need for a little attitude adjustment, Gottfried makes his point by assessing point penalties.

"I just walked up and said, 'point penalty,'" grinned Gottfried. "They had no idea who I was, but I was bigger than they were so they figured they better listen."

They would be wise to listen, and it has nothing to do with Gottfried's size or age. It has everything to do with his success and his experiences.

At age 57, Gottfried may not be a familiar name to most of the new-age players at Bollettieri's. But if they take the time to check, today's dreamers will discover that Gottfried's past is littered not only with wins but also memories that last a lifetime.

"We asked some of the kids if they have ever been to an ATP (men's professional) tournament," Brooks says. "I told them, 'This guy has won 25 tournaments.' They hear that and their eyes grow wide."

Once ranked No. 3 in the world, Gottfried not only won 25 times in singles but he reached the final of 51 tournaments in singles. He got to 95 doubles events, winning 54. In 1977 alone, he reached 15 singles finals, winning five during the year he got to the final of the French Open.

It was a career that took Gottfried around the world and gave him a career path he still treks today.

"God put a passion in my heart when I was 8 years old and it hasn't left me," Gottfried said this week. "For 49 years, I have been able to avoid getting a job."

But that doesn't mean he doesn't have a strong work ethic. Gottfried was known as one of the hardest workers on the tour and even today he looks like he could play a pretty good game.

Much of what Gottfried learned early, on and off the court, came from Bollettieri.

"I consider Nick my second father," Gottfried said. It was a relationship that Gottfried says was directed from a higher force.

How else could there be an explanation for a 9-year-old to go away summers and stay with a tennis instructor he had no previous history with during a time when there was no professional open tennis.

"At that time, the only thing you could get out of playing tennis was a scholarship," Gottfried said. "Our relationship was directed by somebody that knew better than me. It seems it had to come from above."

Gottfried became one of Bollettieri's first academy students, long before Bollettieri came up with his academy idea. He saw Gottfried playing tennis near Miami and invited him to spend summers with him to learn the game.

For five summers, Gottfried would live at the Bollettieri home, wherever it happened to be. First it was Springfield, Ohio. Then Chicago. And for three summers, New York.

Gottfried was taught about discipline on the court during the day and discipline in life at night. He was taught to say "yes sir" and "no sir." He learned to finish whatever food was put on his plate. He gained knowledge about survival, regardless of the obstacles.

By the time he was barely 20, Gottfried had taken part in a Davis Cup match that tested what he had learned. He was a member of the 1972 Davis Cup team that played in Bucharest, barely one month after the Palestinian terrorist group had killed eight Israelis at the Summer Olympics.

Gottfried and Harold Solomon, both Jewish members of the American team, were the focus of rumored threats and subject to tight security arrangements. Throw in the matches against a Romanian team led by tennis bad boys Ilie Nastae and Ion Tiriac and linesmen and umpires making outrageous anti-American calls, it was an experience that forced Gottfried to grow up in a hurry.

"Being a part of that was something that was incredible," Gottfried said about the U.S. win.

So was winning the Word Championship Doubles event in Mexico with partner Raul Ramirez, a victory that touched off a wild celebration by Ramirez' countrymen.

"We were being carried around on the shoulders of people," Gottfried said. "People being Latin might be used to that. As an American, I was just holding on to people's hair."

The game opened a lot of opportunities for Gottfried and that's how he looks at renewing his relationship with Bollettieri. The plan is for Gottfried to spend five days each month at the Bradenton facility, bringing his wisdom and his energy to the academy.

Any student serious about a future in the game would be wise to watch and listen.

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