What do Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova all have in common? Well, for one thing, all four won multiple Grand Slam titles and reached the #1 ranking. For another, all four trained at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida. In fact, those four are just a handful of the stars that passed through the doors at the Academy, with both Williams sisters spending time on its campus, along with the likes of Jelena Jankovic, Tommy Haas, Kei Nishikori and Sabine Lisicki.
Surprisingly, however, Nick Bollettieri himself did not hail from a rich tennis pedigree. He played the sport briefly whilst at college, but never competed in the amateur or professional ranks. Despite this, after dropping out of the University of Miami Law School in 1956, Bollettieri turned his attention to coaching. He set up his first tennis camp in Wisconsin and went on to work as tennis director at the Dorado Beach Hotel in Puerto Rico in the 1960s.
He then returned to Florida, spending time as an instructor for the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort in Longboat Key. In 1978, he made the fateful decision to open his own academy in Bradenton, Florida on a 40 acre campus. It was a revolutionary move, with students at the NBTA training and living full time on the Florida campus, and it did not take long for Bollettieri’s students to start achieving at the highest level.
Jimmy Arias, one of the early graduates from the NBTA, reached the US Open semifinals as a 19-year-old, shortly after he had turned professional, and he was only the first of many success stories to come out of the NBTA. In the 1980s and 1990s, NBTA graduates included the aforementioned Agassi, Courier and Seles, who were amongst the leading lights in the professional game, with the three of them combining to win 21 Grand Slam titles.
The academy was bought in 1987 by IMG, but Bollettieri remained in charge of the tennis academy, with his holistic approach to the development of players also remaining in place, which included a focus on academic education as well as athletic accomplishment. This was vital in providing a route forward for the overwhelming majority of students at the academy who did not go on to join the professional ranks.
The program continues to offer tennis coaching throughout the year, with camps varying from one to five weeks for drop-in programs or a year-long live-in option. With the academy open from ages eight to 18, players initially work on basic skills such as groundstrokes before the option of adding work on speed, nutrition, strength and power from 11-years-old. They can also practise on a variety of surfaces with the academy offering 35 outdoor hard courts, five indoor hard courts, and 16 green clay courts.
The outdoor courts are also equipped with cameras and floodlights, allowing for night matches and pre and post match analysis. With the NBTA now offering athletics programs outside of tennis, all of the students are also given access to the Athletic and Personal Development Program which includes a 10,000-square weight room, Athletic Regeneration area for minor aches and pains and Communication Training and Nutrition Analysis centres.
There are also mental conditioning rooms for one-on-one work with mental specialists to develop confidence, focus and attitude. For their academic classes, students are in an average class size of 15, with the courses offered including English, Maths, Science, Social Sciences and World Languages and Advanced Courses include Computer Science, English Language, English Literature, Physics, Biology and Chemistry. Most students go on to enrol in colleges across the United States.
This approach to shaping the future stars of the game has now spread across the globe, with the Patrick Mouratoglou Academy one particularly prominent example. Current and former stars have also moved to open their own academies in recent years, including 19-time Major champion Rafael Nadal. That has perhaps contributed to a decline in the significance of Bollettieri’s academy, with relatively few graduates of the Florida campus making a significant impact in recent years.
Nonetheless, there is no escaping the reality that the NBTA was responsible for a dramatic shift in the approach to coaching junior tennis players. The increased professionalism of Bollettieri’s approach has been replicated across the world and has surely played a role in the increased standard of tennis played over the past three decades.
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