There are teachers and then there are teachers – Aristotle, who taught Alexander the Great; Annie Sullivan, who unlocked the brilliance of Helen Keller; Jelena Gencic, who taught Novak Djokovic poetry and classical music along with groundstrokes.
Nick Bollettieri is a teacher. Watch him talking to kids who’ve been practicing tennis on one of the 10 indoor courts in the gorgeous new Lifetime Athletic in White Plains, N.Y. He doesn’t just autograph his new book, “Changing the Game” (New Chapter Publisher, 319 pages, $26.95), for them. He takes the time to explain the fine points of the game – their game. And the kids, hardly bigger than the tennis bags they are carrying, really listen.
Even his inscription in my copy is a teacher’s admonition: “You have studied the game. But remember it’s people that you must know in order to give more precise information.”
To Nick, that’s what makes a great coach – the ability to know the individual student to help him become the most he can be.
Nick grew up in Pelham, N.Y., playing football and thinking tennis was a sissy’s game. But then an uncle who belonged to the New Rochelle Tennis Club invited him to join him there and, well, football’s loss was tennis’ gain.
Nick has coached 10 world No. 1s, including the Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova, Andre Agassi and Monica Seles. It was Seles who surprised him at Madison Square Garden on World Tennis Day March 3 to introduce him as one of this summer’s inductees into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
I’m smart enough not to ask who his favorite is and instead ask who is the best he ever coached. He answers the question by turning it around. The most talented, he says, was the Chilean lefty Marcelo Rios. But he never became the player he could’ve been, because he never lived up to his responsibilities to the game, including signing autographs for youngsters, Nick says. Talent, he observes in the book, is not enough.
He's like that, in person and in the book, candid – even if it means telling you what you might not want to hear. He defends those classic tennis parents Richard Williams and Mike Agassi, saying that their tennis offspring might not have achieved all they did without their fathers’ determination. If Nick is easy on difficult fathers, it may be because he says he was not much of a father early on to his own brood of seven. The irony – neglecting his own children to coach those of others. Instead he left his kids in the care of some of his nine wives. Yep, nine wives. I can’t resist asking which was his favorite.
“I was never with any of them long enough to have a favorite,” he says, adding that he was married to three within 13 months.
Judging from the photos and testimonials in the book, Nick is now enjoying time as a family man, proving what George Eliot said, that it’s never too late to become the person you might’ve been.
But what drives him is the game – imparting advice about it and predicting where it’s going. Women’s tennis is wide open, he says, with Serena Williams – a woman of both power and agility – as its greatest exponent.
The men’s field is deeper with a core four (Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray); another half-dozen, including David Ferrer and Stan Wawrinka; and some talented up-and-comers like Milos Raonic and Bernard Tomic. The depth means that the men no longer have a “gimme,” an easy round, as we saw last year when Fed and Rafa went out early at Wimbledon – a possibility that Nick foresaw in his guise as BBC commentator.
But though the men’s field may be deep and the women’s wide open, there’s something we won’t be seeing anytime soon – a teen champion. Fed talked about this recently, noting the last was Rafa at 17.
That’s because the women are 5’9” and 5’10”; the men, 6’2” and 6’3” on average. What teen can withstand that? Nick says. Tennis has become a power game that must be played by men and women.
Speaking of Rafa et al., I ask if he thinks Rafanole is the greatest rivalry now in sports, better than Fedal ever was, given that Nadal-Djokovic is a constant give and take whereas once Nadal started beating Federer it was all over. Here Nick demures, though he does say that Nole brings a certain charisma to Rafanole as an entertainer. All well and good, but can Nole beat Rafa where it counts, on the red clay of Paris?
“The way to beat Nadal is to hit early and come in sometimes at the net,” Nick says – something Nole did against Rafa in the 28-shot rally that ended the recent Sony Open. It is presumably why Nole hired 1980s serve-and-volley specialist Boris Becker to coach him. Nick thinks it’s a good thing – “Boris will keep it simple. There’s not much to change” – just as he thinks it’s a good thing that Fed is working with Stefan Edberg, another ’80s star.
The big difference is that Nole’s two-handed backhand can neutralize Rafa’s forehand the way Fed’s one-handed backhand never could.
Given Rafa’s success with Fed, how can people insist that Roger is the G.O.A.T.? Rather, isn’t true that we’ll never know how great Fed really was, given that the people who could beat him – that would be you, Rafa, Nole and Andy – came along too late?
“Only God knows that answer,” Nick says. “I can say that Roger Federer is the greatest example of what you’d want your children to be. They don’t come any better than him.”
The next day, Nick calls me to thank me for the interview.
Teachers can be good, polite role models, too.