Like most great achievements, this one started with an idea. Whose? Nick Bollettieri points the finger at Mike DePalmer. DePalmer doesn’t want to take all the credit.
“Nick always says it was my idea, but I don’t know,” DePalmer said. “It was a conglomerate of all of us.”
All of us was Bollettieri, DePalmer, Julio Moros, Chip Brooks and Steve Owens, tennis pros who found themselves sitting around the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort after 12 hours of teaching backhands and forehands and asking each other the same questions night after night.
Would kids travel this far to learn tennis?
Would the kids want to leave their families?
What would they charge?
Would it work?
It was the late 1970s and the idea was a tennis academy, something this country had never seen.
“We kept asking, ‘What if . . .? What if . . .? What if . . .?’ ” DePalmer said.
They agreed upon a number: 30.
Find 30 kids willing to travel to Bradenton and the academy would work.
They did, though not all at once, and it worked. Boy, did it work.
Here’s another meaning for the number 30: The academy, known worldwide as the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, celebrates its 30th anniversary this weekend.
Former students and employees descended on the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota this weekend to salute Bollettieri and the others who shared his vision and to toast the alumni who combined to win 170 Grand Slam titles and earn 10 No. 1 rankings.
“Amazing,” DePalmer said Thursday. “There was no book, nothing we could pattern it after. It was just Nick’s work ethic and our desire to succeed.”
A bunch of guys, DePalmer said, with a grand idea and no fear of failure.
A tennis academy?
DePalmer’s daughter, Michelle, was a kid with a racket who earned a scholarship to Bollettieri’s summer camp in Beaver Dam, Wis. When Michelle’s older brother, Mike, took a liking to the game, Mike Sr. decided it was time he hit the courts as well.
“I felt like the only way I was ever going to see them was to join them,” DePalmer said.
At the time, DePalmer was coaching basketball at Manatee Junior College. He had also coached basketball and football at Manatee High. That’s how the former Florida State basketball player found his way to Bradenton in 1959.
DePalmer became a teaching pro, working first in Sarasota then at the Bradenton Country Club. That’s where he met Bollettieri. They started holding clinics for kids on weekends. They also heard some of those kids mention they wouldn’t mind training year round in Florida.
DePalmer’s children attended Bradenton Academy, and DePalmer approached the school with a radical idea: Could they design an academic program from 8 a.m. to noon that would free up the afternoon so students could train on the tennis courts from 1 p.m. until 5 p.m.?
“This was 1975,” DePalmer said, “which at that time was absolutely unheard of in America.”
Bradenton Academy designed the academic program, and the first kids to participate found themselves living either with the DePalmers or the Bollettieris. It wasn’t long before the overflow were farmed out to friends of the DePalmers and Bollettieris.
Budding tennis stars, it turned out, were more than willing to leave their families for the warm Bradenton winters and the opportunity to play tennis seven days a week. More importantly, their parents were willing to pay for that opportunity.
“It just kind of happened by osmosis,” DePalmer said. “One kid telling another kid telling another kid. It started growing and growing and growing.”
DePalmer bought an old hotel on Manatee Avenue, which became the academy’s first dormitories. DePalmer and Bollettieri brought a tennis club on 75th Street, and they were off and running.
Until Mike was ready for college.
The University of Tennessee was interested in Mike. A few years later, the Vols would want Michelle, too. The Vols were also in need of a coach. DePalmer took the job in 1980, leaving Bollettieri to become the most famous name in tennis.
“No regrets,” DePalmer said. “I had a very successful tenure at Tennessee.”
Bollettieri called his old partner one day to tell him he was buying a tomato farm in Bradenton so he could add more courts and train more players.
“There was not one thing out there,” DePalmer said. “I thought he was crazy. Look what it’s become.”
Bollettieri’s academy, with a huge assist from IMG, is the leading tennis academy in the world.
“It has no peer,” DePalmer said. “Nick started an industry that before wasn’t in existence. I don’t think he gets enough credit for that.”
The idea might have been DePalmer’s. It might have been the idea of every one of those pros who, after a long day of teaching tennis at Colony, sat around and dared each other to dream big.
That’s not important. What is important is this: DePalmer is certain there would not be a 30-year anniversary celebration this weekend if it weren’t for Bollettieri.
“Why did it succeed? Nick’s passion. Not backhands and forehands,” DePalmer said. “God gave him the ability to love those kids and love what he’s doing. How else can you still teach kids when you’re 77 years of age? He has a true love for the game and for teaching. His eyes light up when he’s teaching a 9-year-old how to play.”