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Swing With the Stars

On our way from the Florida-fried morning drills, our small group of sweaty middle-age tennis junkies pauses to watch former Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova metronomically pounding baseline shots into the corners. Tick, tock, forehand crosscourt, backhand crosscourt. She works hard, making it look easy.

I had seen Sharapova here at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida, when she was a blonde, pony-tailed girl eight years ago. Wispy yet surprisingly strong and willful and wielding an oversize racket that seemed gigantic in her hands, she never wearied, smoothly swatting every ball Bollettieri fed her. She was precious and precocious, a player he called special-though no one could have guessed she would win Wimbledon at 17 two years ago and reach No. 1 last summer. Sharapova’s father had brought her here from Russia when she was 9 and the family was nearly broke.

Bollettieri, shirtless in his shorts on court as if he had just stepped off the beach, always wearing his wraparound sunglasses and a smile, encouraged Sharapova with every stroke. He was as driven as any of his students, rising early for his own exercise, then working 12 to 14 hours a day. He had built his academy up from a tomato patch to a training ground for promising pros that had turned out the likes of Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Monica Seles, Mary Pierce, and Anna Kournikova. Others including Venus and Serena Williams, Pete Sampras, and Boris Becker had trained here. Thousands more had gone on to college careers, with scholarships paying for much of their schooling. Bollettieri’s creed for success: discipline, responsibility, effort.

"Every endeavor pursued with passion produces a successful outcome regardless of the result," he says. "It is not about winning or losing-rather, the effort put forth in producing the outcome.

"The best way to predict the future is to create it. … We believe we have the best training methods to help each athlete achieve their dreams and goals and ultimately reach their ability level in the arenas of sports and life."

Impressed the first time I came here-though I fought muscle cramps each night after intensive training with adults, juniors, and pros from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. to take in the whole program-I have returned to Bradenton to see how the IMG Academy have grown, outward and inward. IMG, which includes Bollettieri’s program, is better than ever, having expanded to five sports on 300 acres and featuring homes, resort villas, and a lodge. It also includes a private school for the juniors that accommodates their practice time and tournament trips.

Some things haven’t changed. Bollettieri, 74, is still out there on the same green court I’d seen him on a decade earlier, dressed the same, his bare chest as dark and leathery as ever. The sunglasses and smile are still there as he hits balls toward a blonde, pony-tailed 5-year-old swinging a racket that comes up to her chin. "Pretty backhand," says Bollettieri, a believer in positive reinforcement. "That’s how you hit your backhand. You don’t want to be jumping all over the place. Slow down, slow down. Good backhand."

Could she be the next Sharapova?

No mere fantasy camp, the IMG Academy are a sports paradise for athletes ages 5 to 95-juniors and pros, college-bound players, and avid amateurs working out, side by side, morning to evening. It’s a happy place, kids scooting between lessons, having fun, but it’s also an earnest training ground. The welcome sign should post a warning: "No Wusses."

The academies are a uniquely accomplished and all-encompassing model for sports success, which IMG plans to take global. Sports camps of differing quality and type abound in the U.S. and many other countries. The IMG Academy offer training and coaching of a higher, broader, more passionate order, with athletes of every level and sport feeding off one another’s energy. The academies do sports the way NASA tries to do space-with exhaustive attention to the tiniest details. The buzz is almost palpable as you roam the immaculate campus.

Taking lessons at the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, I set up on the driving range beside Paula Creamer, the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex rookie of the year at 19 in 2005. I watched her hit a million balls while honing her game. Now teeing off are a dozen teens with sweet swings, all hoping to follow her path into the pros. For those of us who spend a lifetime pursuing the occasional par, they are at once humbling and inspiring.

On the practice green, Ivan Lendl, club in hand, stops by to say hello. I had known the former tennis champ when he took fitness to a new level to dominate the courts in the 1980s. Since hanging up his racket, he’s become obsessed with golf and made it a family affair-so much so that he moved his brood of five daughters to Bradenton to have them train at the Leadbetter academy. Four of them play the game seriously. Marika, 15, and Isabelle, 13, already are making their marks nationally in the juniors. Lendl whispers to me with a proud smile that his 12-year-old, Daniela, and 7-year-old, Nikola, might be even better.

"The girls are very dedicated, and their father knows what it takes to succeed in sports," golf academy director and former pro David Whelan says. "The regimen here is pretty strict. This is the correct blend of all the things it takes to succeed-physical, mental, technical. It’s all about playing and training. Paula Creamer was probably the hardest-working player we’ve had. We get great young players and people who just love the game. We had one lady, 91, who hit the ball well and was looking to get better."

My coach for three half-days of lessons, Gary Parrett, is a gentleman with a touch of genius. Patiently, methodically, using video cameras, computer analysis, and a keen eye, he takes my ugly strokes and reshapes them into something resembling the style of Nick Faldo, a Leadbetter devotee. Suddenly, magically, balls are going straight. The trick is to keep hitting the ball the way Parrett shows me when I go home. To assist, he hands me a DVD of everything we did and talked about-kind of a minimasters course in golf.

Leadbetter helped Michael Campbell work out the kinks in his game, and the New Zealander won the US Open last year. I’ll feel that Parrett achieved as much if I ever break par.

I don’t often train to go on vacation.

I might give up pecan pie for a few days, trying to contain my spreading flesh before baring too much of it at a beach resort. I don’t spend more time or push harder on the elliptical trainer, excessively pump weights, stretch with greater conviction, or try to groove my tennis and golf games before going to Club Med. The IMG Academy are the antidote to Club Med. Remembering the muscle cramps I suffered the last time I was here and the middle-of-the-night gulping of Gatorade, I trained hard this time to get the most out of my week of tennis, golf, and fitness sessions.

Don’t waste your time and considerable money coming here for a week of tennis or golf lessons if you want mainly to lounge all day in the sun and maybe slip in a set or round. There is no bingo by the pool, no dance music, no bar serving piña coladas and margaritas all day.

This sprawling campus, an hour’s drive south of Tampa, is part sports boot camp, part sports Disneyland, a civil yet tough, bold stab at teaching the secrets of success to fast-track athletic kids from around the world. And not just kids. Corporate executives, managers, a school board, police, and the top pros migrate here to turn up their games-and their professions-a few notches. The rooms and homes are posh, the golf course is lush, and the 51 tennis courts come in clay and hard. The buffets are good, if not quite gourmet, passing muster for nutrition and taste.

Some 12,000 athletes arrive each year for summer and holiday camps, team training, short-time weeks, full-time academy semesters, tournaments, corporate outings, and family vacations, choosing between regular or customized programs. To roam the IMG Academy is to feel as if you’re in an Olympic village with athletes from different sports and
75 countries.

The two gleaming hardwood basketball courts are busy as I step inside to watch scrimmages between teams of young giants. Maybe there’s a future NBA player or two among them. Dozens more will show up in the spring to prepare for the draft. Kevin Garnett leads a cadre of some 50 pros onto these courts in the summer.

In the off-season, the baseball academy bustles with players getting ready for spring training, including the New York Yankees’ Derek Jeter and Gary Sheffield. College football players arrive after that to prepare for the NFL Combine. Members of the U.S. national men’s soccer team are working out, and the junior program is in full throttle.

The International Performance Institute is the hub of all the sports at the center-a state-of-the-art fitness facility with the best coaches, trainers, and physical therapists and every pieceof equipment imaginable. The goal here is to get the most out of an athlete’s body. The inner athlete is the domain of other specialists a few steps away.

Trevor Moawad, the director of mental conditioning, has coached 28 NFL first-round draft picks in the past six years, and the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars since 2002. Actor Steve Shenbaum, who worked closely with Sampras toward the end of his playing days, heads Game On, a communications program for juniors and elite athletes.

"Steve helped me finally feel comfortable being myself and more relaxed in social situations," says Sampras, who wishes he had met Shenbaum earlier in his tennis career. "His improvisation techniques are hilarious. If I can do them, anyone can."

Veteran NBA referee Bob Delaney, who runs a multisport officiating program that prepares would-be whistleblowers for six-figure careers, also gives seminars on leadership, civility, and integrity-qualities sadly lacking in too many athletes and business leaders.

Together, Delaney, Shenbaum, and Moawad bring their varied skills and humor to Performance Rules, workshops that draw on the mindset of champions to help businesspeople become better leaders in the workplace.

"This place is unique," says academies codirector Ted Meekma, who has been here from the start in the 1970s.

"A formula we invented to succeed in tennis is working in other sports. No one is doing what we are in so many sports and on so many levels. We’re still growing, still trying to improve what we do."

The young dream of pro careers.

For those of us with more years and no such illusions but with competitive spirits and a desire to elevate our games, the academies offer a chance to train alongside elite athletes, be inspired by them, and get the same kind of coaching for a few days, a week, a month, or year-round. It’s jock heaven, a place to start life or renew it.

"It’s all there, whether for a young athlete, a professional athlete, or a retired businessman," says Ben Bidwell, a retired chairman of Chrysler Motors Corp. "I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere, and never will-because there isn’t anything like it."

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