Remembering My Association with Nick Bollettieri

I was sad to hear recently that tennis coaching legend Nick Bollettieri died of kidney failure at the age of 91. Nick had a full and fascinating life and is survived by his 8th wife, 33 years his junior, and 7 kids, including 2 adopted. It got me to reflecting on my own relationship with Nick and parallels we shared.

Nick started what eventually became one of the most highly respected and famous tennis academies in the world. It began at the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort on Longboat Key, Florida, and eventually moved to Bradenton, Florida.

When I knew him at The Colony, Nick had at his disposal a multitude of hard tennis courts (14) for guests as well as students of the academy. The living quarters were rated five stars and the cozy restaurant was nestled on the beach within feet of the tepid and calm Gulf of Mexico. The Colony was the home of the celebrated tennis writer Bud Collins.

The Colony Resort and the Bollettieri Academy hosted Bud Collins’s “Hackers Open,” a week-long tournament for people that loved the game but weren’t professionals. I was asked by Prince to put on a clinic there, what I call a “Dog & Pony Show.” I remember Bud Collins coming downstairs from his suite in shorts, a tank top, barefooted, and looking like he just woke up. He was coming to eat breakfast. To this day, I marvel at how he could patronize a classy restaurant in his bare feet. But then, this was his home.

The clinic went well, but Nick wasn’t there. I tried to explain to myself his absence. Then, I remembered the wisdom and vision of Prince’s Sam McCleery. Sam was in charge of world-class player development—signing pros to Prince products. He often said, “you don’t want to rent the business or real estate, you want to own it! I’ll bet that’s where Nick was, looking to own some property.

Months later, I was asked to travel to Nick’s newly-owned facility in Bradenton to teach him the intricacies of the Prince Deluxe #2 ball machine. He was now under contract with Prince and needed to embrace the ball machine. But he had no use for it.

He was gruff and impatient. He didn’t want to be talking to me. I was usurping his time and he was not used to someone like me who had as much energy as he had. I was in his territory and a threat to him. I showed him how the spin adapter worked on the machine and left.

As luck would have it, I ran into him at the US Open. He greeted me with a firm handshake, a big chest bump, and a bear of a bear hug. I asked myself, Why the dramatic change in behavior? Dramatic change happens when a critical moment and tipping point occur. Remember the spin adapter on the ball machine? That was the tipping point.

Guillermo Vilas was winning every clay court tournament with spin. He was Nadal before Nadal. He could outlast anyone but had no one to practice with who could outlast him. The machine and spin adapter prolonged his visit at the Bollettieri Academy. Nick now loved the machine!

Nick and I had a few drinks on that one. I learned that Nick and I had many similarities. He was my age. He served in the Korean War. I served during the Korean War too. He was a Green Beret. I was a lowly private. He pleased generals by winning life-threatening battles. I pleased generals by winning baseball games. He flunked out of law school. I flunked out of Duke. Nick wasn’t much of a player. I was classified as an ugly player. Nick taught tennis to eat. I did Prince clinics but never taught them. Nick had a son by his first wife, as did I, and they both are the same age. Our 2nd wives had rich man families. Nick was addicted to exercise at 5 am. I preferred mine before dinner at 5 pm. Nick had Smiley Bones (aka Ken Merritt) as an evaluator of his presentations. Smiley Bones was my performance mentor.

Nick was a marketing genius. Many camp owners preceded him, but none played the numbers game like he did. He recruited the best tennis prospects and top world-class pros to train and compete at his academy. “Let the cream rise to the top” must have been his motto. He had many more number 1 players in the world than any of his contemporaries. I was the father of the Prince-style tennis clinics. My clinics brought players throughout the world to the game of tennis.

He was a motivational speaker, and I was too. I had the opportunity to give a talk to his young players at the academy on my principles, including positive attitude, goal setting, and mental toughness. Nick and I were on the same wavelength in that way too.

Nick passed away but I’m still kicking, nearing 90. I have COPD. I’m still doing almost everything I used to do. It just takes me more time, more patience, and lots more effort. My wife, Mary Ellen, watches me like a mother hen watching a chick. 

I never interacted with Nick after our time together at the US Open, but we stayed in touch through Karen Bunsa, one of my “Ladies of the Court.” I’ve always admired him for creating a brand and for truly making a difference in the tennis world. Rest in peace, Nick!

One Comment

  1. Sari

    What a wonderful story. You have gained so much wisdom from others, showing reverence and respect for your life experiences and incorporating them into the inspirational person you are. Thank you Marty, for all the tipping point moments you have created for my game and my life. See you on the court!

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