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Nick Bollettieri likes to call himself the Michelangelo of Tennis, to impart the notion that he is an artistic genius who carefully molds youngsters into superb players. That might make for a nice image, but it's way off. To understand how Bollettieri teaches kids, it is important to know that he's a former paratrooper, and that what he turns out on the court are little troopers, once-dear children transformed into steely-eyed tennis fanatics who scowl across the net. This is called producing champions.
Bollettieri does it as well as anyone. As the director of the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy at the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort in Longboat Key, Fla., just outside Sarasota, he heads a program that in a few years may prove to be the spawning ground of the game's foremost players. Nearly 100 teen-agers from around the world are at the academy 9� months a year, embracing a rigorous discipline, displaying an ascetic devotion. They attend local schools during the mornings, then grab a sandwich and change into tennis clothes for a long afternoon of boot camp training, in which demerits are handed out for missing a shot and resting without permission.
The academy is, in effect, a tennis factory. And Bollettieri is the foreman, a controversial figure whose bizarre training methods are well known and often discussed in living rooms across America where there is a collection of junior tennis trophies on the mantel. Last year Bollettieri's machine dominated the world's top junior and 21-and-under events, winning 17 titles. This year he wants more, and so far his plant is producing ahead of schedule.
Bollettieri is a perfectionist who denies his students the simplest pleasures. At their living quarters, lights go out at 10 p.m., and the students are not allowed to watch television on weekdays. On the court, Bollettieri gets mad if the kids twirl their rackets or if they take too long picking up practice balls. He says the easiest part of his job is on the lesson court, where if a youngster doesn't heed directives he can make the kid run on the beach and afterward deny him water. Bollettieri's hardest task: breaking the bond between child and parent.
Bollettieri calls it "getting with the program," and you are either with the program or out of it. Tuition is $1,100 monthly; there is a waiting list, and the occasional malcontents are weeded out and discarded like dead tennis balls. The students live in a former motel in nearby Bradenton that has been converted into a spartan dormitory, and every so often they are bundled off to the public library so counselors can tear apart their living quarters in search of things as innocuous as cupcakes. On weekdays, junk food is as verboten as TV watching and tearful phone calls to parents.
If this is beginning to sound like a minimum security tennis correctional camp, well, it is. One of Bollettieri's heroes is the late Vince Lombardi, who uttered the line: "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." That phrase could be the academy's motto.
Over the years, the 48-year-old Bollettieri has been a big winner, but he has been a loser, too. Four years ago he was out of work and had to borrow a car to drive from Fort Lauderdale to Sarasota to look for a job. Says Julio Moros, his chief administrator, "All we had when we started was Nick's name, and it was not a big name."
When Bollettieri became the Colony's Director of Tennis, he invited a top junior, Anne White of Charleston, W. Va., to live and train with him. Others followed and the idea mushroomed. Now among the academy's students are a fair sampling of the world's top juniors, including Kathleen Horvath, who last fall, at 14, was the youngest female ever to play in the U.S. Open; 15-year-old Jimmy Arias, the youngest player ever ranked on the ATP's computer, who's thought by some experts to be the best junior prospect in the country; and Carling Bassett, 12 years old and a millionaire's daughter, the offspring of John Bassett, the Canadian industrialist and sports entrepreneur. Because of their considerable skills, this triumvirate lives in Bollettieri's house, where he can maintain an around-the-clock vigil and foster an unrelenting commitment.
Bollettieri's students are training for only a handful of years ahead—the length of a player's career in this sport. They are there only to get better, to improve their rankings and their games. "The only reason I came down here is for tennis," says 14-year-old Chris Conk. "I don't really care about anything else, such as girls or cars or television. I have my radio and my tennis. That's enough." Conk is a typical Bollettieri student: a good player at the state level who aspires to be great. He's from Richmond, where he had a reputation as a kid who loved to practice and train. "It's perfect for me here," Conk says. "At home I complained I didn't get to play enough. Here I play as much as I want."
Between unknowns like Conk and the phenoms like Arias and Horvath, Bollettieri has some mere stars: Paul Annacone, the top 16-year-old in the East; Pam Casale, the winner of the 1980 Orange Bowl 16s; Junior Gonzales, the third-ranked 16-year-old in Puerto Rico; and Eric Korita, a massive kid—6'4", 220 pounds—from Glenview, Ill., who could turn out better than anyone. What Bollettieri does for such talented players is provide an environment, an intensity of discipline and competition, in which the best will reach their full potential; on an average weekend the academy's round-robin tournament has a better field than most junior tournaments. Last year Bollettieri's kids beat the University of Florida men's team 9-0.