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At 80, he's still living the tennis life

World-renowned tennis coach Nick Bollettieri of Bradenton turns 80-years-old Sunday. He was photographed at the IMG Academy in Bradenton Tuesday.
World-renowned tennis coach Nick Bollettieri of Bradenton turns 80-years-old Sunday. He was photographed at the IMG Academy in Bradenton Tuesday.

The man who never seems to slow down has picked up the pace.

Today, on his 80th birthday, Nick Bollettieri will drive to the United States Military Academy at West Point. And on Monday afternoon Bollettieri will step out a door of an airplane to make a tandem jump of 13,500 feet with the famed Black Knights parachute team that will include a 50-second free fall.

"I will be scared, just like my first jump those many years ago as a member of the army paratroopers, Bollettieri said. "It will be great."

He won't have much time to recover because he will fly that night to Washington D.C., then leave the next morning for Ethiopia, meet his new son, and finalize adoption papers for the 31/2-year-old boy. His new son will join a family that includes 6-year-old Giovanni, who Bollettieri and his wife Cindi, adopted in Ethiopia two years ago.

"It's what keeps me young," Bollettieri said about the children, and the busy schedule he keeps.

The son of a fire chief in Pelham, N.Y., the former paratrooper dropped out of law school to take a part-time job as a tennis instructor in Miami Beach which led Bollettieri to a career as what most consider the most successful tennis coach in the world.

He has been associated with 10 players who have been ranked No. 1 in the world, including Andre Agassi, Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova. But, more importantly, he changed the game by building the first year-round live-in tennis academy.

While he was working at the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort on Longboat Key, Bollettieri and his partners bought a run-down motel and established the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. A few years later a tomato farm in southwest Bradenton was purchased and is now the site of IMG Academy, a facility that covers nearly 400 acres and is the site of the 56- court Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy.

Married to the game, Bollettieri has also had eight wives and lived a life that has taken him around the world. His work day typically begins around 5 a.m. and rarely ends before 9 or 10 at night. He has touched countless lives and has put Bradenton in the international tennis map. A few days ago, Bolletteri sat down with Herald-Tribune sportswriter Mic Huber to talk about his life.

Q:Is there any one event that turned your life to tennis?

A:Yes. It was the summer of my junior year (at Spring Hill college in Mobile, Ala.), when I was home for summer vacation. My uncle by marriage, his name was John Lightfoot, was a fanatic tennis player. He belonged to the New Rochelle (N.Y.) Country Club and he said, 'Nick, let's go play some tennis.' I said, 'that's for sissies,' but I went. He told me I could be a pretty good tennis player. I went back to college and they needed a sixth man, so I made the team. And that is what started me in tennis ... it was a sheer accident.

Q:When you started all those years ago, could you imagine you would still be doing this at the age of 80?

A:To be truthful, I have never really looked at my age. My mind goes in one direction — get better, do things differently, and never question time. I believe that people divide their lives into numbers and they think they are justified in saying that if you put 20 or 30 years in with a company that it is time to retire.

I never have looked at life that way and that is why I think I am where I am today.

Q:Your daily schedule, which usually begins at 5 a.m. is legendary. The time you put into tennis seems all-consuming. How do you keep it up at 80?

A:There has to be some input of different things. Golf has been fantastic for me. I like body surfing and doing other things.

I believe right now that the adopting of Giovanni has made a tremendous impact of wanting to keep going because of the excitement that I get of being with him.

I believe that people who are getting along in age, if they would spend time in youth centers and care centers, I sincerely believe it would help them feel young again.

Q:Are you a better coach today than you were when your academy burst onto the scene?

A:Sure I am better today. No. 1, I am a far better coach than 30 years ago because I have 30 years more experience. No. 2, I have learned to listen more and find out the important information from the person you are working with. And No. 3, I know the game has changed. So as a coach I have had to adjust.

Q:Speaking of listening, didn't Andre Agassi once tell you that you had to learn how to listen?

A:Oh sure. When he was going home for that Christmas vacation (as a young teenager at the academy). He said, 'Nick, do you ever listen to anybody? You'd be surprised what you could learn.' He was right and I learned from that.

Q:What changes would you make in the way international tennis is run?

A:I would have some tournaments, believe it or not, where the kids have to serve and volley half the time. I would have some tournaments where they have to return and come in on the second serve every time. I probably would put in some specific things they would be required to do ... I would have some points where you have to keep the ball in play ... 10, 12, 15 times. Certain things that have to be accomplished at a young age.

Q:What is your biggest single regret in tennis?

A:Two things. Sending a letter instead of going out to Vegas and talking to Andre before I left his team. And sitting in a coaches box with Andre Agassi when I was coaching both him and Jim Courier at the same time. I shouldn't have done that.

Q:If you could have a conversation with anybody in tennis, who would it be, and why?

A:I always enjoyed talking with Arthur Ashe because he tore down barriers. He tore down buildings to allow people to get into buildings.

Most people build buildings. He tore them down. He tore down barriers. I also enjoyed Arthur. He was very unique and very quiet. I enjoyed talking to him. (Bollettieri and Ashe collaborated and the Ashe-Bollettieiri program to aid inner-city youth.

Q:What do you consider the most important moment in your life?

A:Every day is important to me. There are so many things that are enjoyable and are important. I tackle everything that I consider important but I also have fun in everything I do. I must be doing something right. It is hard for me to believe how well known I am throughout the world. It is fantastic.

Q:Which players surprised you most by who went the farthest, with what talent they had?

A:Monica Seles and Jim Courier. They each worked so hard for everything they got. Monica would do whatever it took to get better. Courier had no backhand but had an incredible work ethic. We told him to just run around his backhand and hit a forehand.

Q:What young players at the academy excite you now?

A:The academy is not filled with possible superstars as it was back when we had all those great players battling each other every day. Back in the '80s and '90s, they were all scholarships. That has changed. There never will be another early part of the academy. I think we have a few good young players coming up. I think now my job is more being the guy who gives tidbits of advice.

Q:What is the secret to your success?

A:I am a winner. I believe that with my heart and soul. If I am not a winner at something I am going to (mess) my way through. I am going to find a way to be a winner if I can't compare to that person and what they have over me. I have never envied anybody of having more materialistic things than I have. Never. My father said, 'Don't envy. If you want to be like them, you do more.'

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