The last time I spent $1,500 in one hour, the scenario involved chips, cards, a green velvet table and blurred vision. $1,500 is also the fee for a one-hour, private lesson with unquestionably the world’s most renowned tennis coach, Nick Bollettieri. Returns on investments of this nature can be significant — just ask Andre Agassi (career earnings of $30 million and counting), Jennifer Capriati, Jim Courier and Maria Sharapova, to name a few of the stars he has coached.
At the age of 32 and certainly past my prime, I decided to pass on the $1,500 lesson and settle for an exclusive interview with the man who has his finger firmly on the pulse of the tennis world on a range of topics including the next Japanese tennis sensation, the problems with Japanese tennis, umpiring, rule changes, underachievers and just how world No. 1 Roger Federer would have matched up against former greats.
Charging $3 for a half-hour lesson (fees have significantly increased since then) to help pay his way through a law degree at the University of Miami, Bollettieri began his steep rise toward tennis fame.
His first ace was Brian Gottfried who rose to No. 3 in the world rankings. People took notice and it wasn’t long before Bollettieri was coaching the likes of Jimmy Arias, Aaron Krickstein and Carling Bassett, before developing the fortunes of Courier, Agassi, Pete Sampras, Monica Seles, Capriati.
In 1987, Bollettieri had 32 of his players in the main draw of Wimbledon and 27 at the U.S. Open. Arguably though it was through Agassi that he caught the attention of the world in a big way.
Japan Times: When did you notice that Agassi was something special, what advice did you give him and how did you help him develop into a star?
Nick Bollettieri: Andre came to us at the age of 13 and right away you could see he had something different, the way he dressed, his flamboyant character . . . His daddy told him to hit the ball as hard as he could from the age of two and we didn’t want to change that.
I was very much responsible for his backhand and also the swinging volley which you now see predominantly utilized by the Williams sisters.
Mentally, I also helped him to focus and to get some discipline in his game. He felt that the discipline we taught him was responsible for some of his early success.
You once mentioned that your split with Agassi was one of your biggest mistakes. Why did you split and are you still in contact with each other?
Well, I made two huge mistakes that I regret terribly.
One, I sat in Agassi’s box during a French Open clash between Andre and Jim Courier (one of his other students). This hurt Jim terribly and it was wrong. We are now great friends and he is one of my biggest supporters.
The second big mistake was writing a letter to Andre. The team was getting to a point to where I felt that is was difficult for me to contribute with so many people having so many philosophies on his development and instead of talking to him — after being a second father to him for the previous 10 years — I wrote him a letter and I should never have done that.
John McEnroe has described Roger Federer as the greatest player he has ever seen. Would you back this assessment and how would he have matched up against Sampras at his best?
Roger Federer has no weaknesses.
Agassi said something interesting the other day. He said that he would have to play his best tennis and Federer to have an off day for him to have a chance of beating him.
If you take all the great players: Bjorn Borg — great mobility, strong attitude and concentration, never missed the ball but no weapon; Jimmy Connors — never had a forehand and his serve was not strong enough. If he had developed a strong serve like a lefty should have had, he would have been unbeatable.
(Ivan) Lendl — never really had the ability to close out a point when he had got himself in a position to do so; Pete Sampras — the return of serve from the backhand side was really his weakness; Agassi — serve not strong enough; Federer — no weakness.
So you would give Federer the edge over Sampras at his best?
Yes, I would. Whether or not he equals Sampras’ record is debatable. A lot can happen — girls, getting hurt. His potential weakness will be getting better against himself.
Remember, everybody else is going to be working harder so they can say they can beat Federer. That’s what they did with Tiger Woods and that’s what happened with Venus and Serena (Williams). If Venus and Serena had stayed as competitive as they were two years ago they would have been nearly impossible to beat.
Because they are the best athletes. Serena is the best athlete on the tour by far. But it shows that not only do you have to be a great athlete, but also that you have to stick at it.
Why is Agassi still so good today?
Because he works harder physically than anybody else. So I believe that Federer’s only potential enemy will be himself.
Federer is the only top player who doesn’t have a coach. What do you think about that?
Well, No. 1, he has good hitting partners. But the foundation was established through good coaching. I think that is interesting.
For him to be where he is today without coaching is debatable. Can he do it on his own now?
Maybe he can. What he will have to be careful about is making little improvements without being detectable. That is very important.
I also believe that he will have to improve his serve. He will also need to come to the net a little bit more quickly. I think he will keep having to add a tiny little bit all the time.
He will have to train harder. The physical and mental aspects are what he should be more concerned with rather than his technique. Whether he can maintain fighting against everybody else in the world, being physically better than anybody else, not letting up one tiny bit will be his challenge every day.
He is only 24, he could get injured. A girl could change his whole life.
Men vs. women. Let’s say Serena Williams vs. the 100th ranked male. Where would your money go?
I was with them four years ago in Australia when this happened. The German guy, (Karsten Braasch, ranked No. 203) smoked cigarettes between points, beating Serena 6-1 and then Venus 6-2 . . . he chopped them up!
You see the difference between the top 100 men is first of all, their mobility will allow them to run down the best shots of any girl. No. 2 — the serve will make a big difference. The men will have no weakness in movement or anything obvious for the women to attack.
Now, the one weakness the boys will have is that they may screw around. Physically, there is a major difference.
In that case do you think women deserve parity with men in terms of pay? A lot of male players have said that women don’t.
You know what . . . the men shouldn’t think too much, they are making so much damn money anyway!
And, if you remember two years ago, the women’s circuit was more popular than the men’s. The men shouldn’t worry about trivial things like that.
What are the particular characteristics that stand out in a young player in terms of having the potential to become a top star? What chance does a young kid with great potential have of cracking the top 10 in the future?
Well, I have a guy, Donald Young, who at 15 is the youngest professional in the world. First, you need the things that God gave you. You need to be an athlete. Very difficult to not be a great athlete today and be a winner.
Do you like to make fundamental changes in a talented youngsters technique? For example John McEnroe had a technically incorrect playing style.
Yeah, McEnroe did everything wrong but it came out right.
Very difficult to change a player’s natural style. I mean, look at Brad Gilbert with Andy Roddick — he didn’t change his style, just his approach.
In Japan we have some talented female players in Ai Sugiyama and Shinobu Asagoe but there is a definite lack of high-profile male players.
There are some coming. Japan has three great players coming and we think one of them could be a top 10 player in the world.
Among the boys, we have Genki Tomita and Kei Nishikori and a great young female prospect in Fumiaki Kita.
Nishikori, who is 15, could be a sensation. He hits the ball hard, has an attacking style, is mentally strong and can do anything with the ball. Recently he had a practice session with Tommy Haas (top German pro) and Kei gave him such a run around that Tommy ended up getting pissed off.
What have been the problems in Japanese tennis to date?
Well, the Japanese players have been very stoic. Take your girls — basically they like that baseline. Even though they play pretty good doubles, they like that baseline. Unless you are an unbelievable baseliner with a huge serve, it is tough to win just from the baseline.
I also think their whole background has been one of conservatism. Not flamboyant, afraid to take gambles.
I also think that the coaching here is starting to improve. More depth in coaching.
Further, training Japanese players just in their own country is a little limiting. They need to test themselves against different styles of play to learn to adjust their games. They need more exposure.
The president of Sony, Masaoki Morita, is doing a lot to help the game here, by sponsoring kids.
Rule changes. It has been suggested that the game has become too dominated by the serve and that things should be done to restrict this.
Why should they change the game of tennis?
If you can’t play the damn game and adjust to offset the serve then to hell with it, you shouldn’t be playing. That’s like saying you have to change the height of the basket because Yao Ming is too tall. The players have to adjust to the damn rules.
What about umpiring? You recently criticized the umpiring in the U.S. Open match between Jennifer Capriati and Serena Williams when a number of controversial calls went against Williams, arguably costing her the match.
I believe they must change. The speed of the game is too much for the naked eye. You need some help.
That match saw the most horrendous umpiring I have seen in tennis in my whole life.
McEnroe would have freaked.
Yeah, Johnny Mac was there and he went absolutely crazy on television. He said he would have busted the joint up!
I think that umpire should be finished forever because she had no right making five incorrect overrulings.
What players at the top have possibly underachieved in your opinion?
I think Marat Safin could have been up on top a lot more. I think he needed someone to help him play the game.
Another underachiever, I think, was Marcelo Rios who had as much talent as anybody who has ever played the game.
Anna Kournikova, one of my first students, never reached her potential.
If Tim Henman had left the country of England and been with a coach like Paul Annacone, it could have made a difference. Every year at Wimbledon, he had the whole country on his shoulders.
Amelie Mauresmo . . . mentally very weak but I believe that if she could have had someone work with her mental side of the game, she’s got a lot of talent, man!
Yevgeny Kafelnikov probably could have been on top a lot longer.
What key piece of advice would you give to any aspiring youngster?
You can’t have any weakness any more and you must be so competitive and love to fight so much that within you it drives you to a level that you can get the best out of yourself all the time. But, you have to have that passion. It cannot come one day and leave you the next day.
Don’t think about your opponent and think that your opponent played better than you on the day. That’s b******t!
You have to have the mentality that when you are on the court, you want to beat the s**t out of your opponent every time.
Like McEnroe …
That’s the attitude! Borg had that attitude too.
Why did you choose Tachibana Tennis Academy to hold this seminar?
First of all, I think that Hideki Ishii, the head coach out here, is an outstanding teaching pro and is very dedicated. Also, it is a great facility right in the hub of town and made it easy to give a seminar like this.
Why are you focused on kids in Japan and what do you hope to achieve here? Could you tell us a bit about your vision?
I had a very interesting meeting with the Professor of the Nippon Sport Science University and president of the Japan Professional Tennis Association, Isao Watanabe. I believe that this meeting will be a major step forward in the coaching of tennis in Japan.
My coaching partner, Gabe Jaramillo, and I have two objectives: Get more people to play the game with one program; and then develop champions as a second program.
So do you think we could have a Japanese Wimbledon champion in the future?
Within five years, we believe that one of the boys at the academy right now can be a top 10 player. Anytime you have a top 10 player, you have a chance of reaching another level.
I can’t say whether you will have a Wimbledon champion, but I believe that within the next five years, Japan could have some players in the top 10 in the world. Once you do that, the whole ball game changes.
But you need a big winner. We got to have a winner.
Like the Russian women . . . suddenly there one or two Russian champions and now they are coming out of the woodwork. Also 15 years ago, the Swedish men started to suddenly produce champions . . .
Like (Mats) Wilander and all the guys. But we have to have some big winners to excite. In order to have those winners, we need more depth in the coaching, more sponsorship, more flexibility and we have to have more of a system like our system in the academy.
There are no guarantees, but if you put all of these things together, you have a chance.
Japan is not lacking good athletes — this was clear in the Olympic Games. The Japanese may not be big in stature but they are good athletes and therefore need to be taught not to have any weaknesses in their game.
They need to be taught how to play a total game — bigger forehands, bigger serves — you can’t just play from the baseline.
Finally, I would like to say that following the meeting I had tonight, I am hoping that very soon, I can make a major impact with a Japanese player and help all the coaches in the country.
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