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Matchpoint at 78

india Updated: Jul 18, 2010 01:41 IST
Aasheesh Sharma
Aasheesh Sharma
Hindustan Times
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Two weeks short of his 79th birthday, Nicholas James Bollettieri is still tennis's favourite love-all guru. The coach who gave us Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Jim Courier, Monica Seles, Mary Pierce and Jelena Jankovic, was in town for what he does best — catch them young. "When the All India Tennis Association, IMG and Reliance approached me to put my 32-year-old experience to use, I couldn't say no. Indian players can leave their mark on the world, provided they work on their physical fitness.” Nick's aces

Bollettieri knows what he is talking about. Sprightly at 78, he can teach young athletes a thing or two about living healthy. "I eat in limited proportions. I don't smoke and do my light weights, sit-ups and kick-ups in the water," he says.

Since 1978, when he launched the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, the first major tennis boarding school in the world, Bollettieri has watched a number of stars burst onto the tennis horizon. And at present, Rafael Nadal is the brightest of them all, he reckons. "Labelled a clay court player, Rafa made adjustments. He flattened his forehand, worked on his serve and improved his court position from 10 feet behind the baseline to a few feet. He is not afraid to come in, and is a lefty. And he is only 24. If his body holds up, he can be an all time great."

Bollettieri anoints Nadal the best clay court player ever. "It is tough for me to say this because I am good friends with (Bjorn) Borg and Thomas Muster, but Rafa is in a class of his own."

Bollettieri doesn't like to compare yesteryear stars with today's champs.

"It is tough to compare a Rafa with a (Rod) Laver as Laver would have had a different grip. (Jimmy) Connors' forehand was crap but he broke you down mentally." But left-handers are at an advantage. "It is tough with one hand to take that constant pounding with the heavy ball, heavy spin and new strings."

Among the younger crop, Bollettieri places his protégés Yuki Bhambri, Ryan Harisson and Filip Krajinovic among the top 6 in the world. "Yuki is terrific but too laidback. We've gotta put a little more fire into him."

In 1953, Bollettieri, the son of middle-class second-generation Italian-Americans, graduated in Philosophy. What made him turn to tennis? "After graduation, I flunked a test to the naval air force and volunteered for the para services. After two years, I joined law school. But I dropped out since I could not do the books. Tennis gave me a vocation."

He wasn't very good at the game to begin with. "I played football in college and knew very little about tennis. I bullshitted my way through in the beginning. But slowly I learnt everything."

The first Bollettieri pupils to reach number one were Monica Seles, Jim Courier and Agassi. Later, Marcelo Ríos climbed to the top. But Bollettieri has a soft corner for Agassi, about whom he once remarked: "When I had Andre for six-and-one-half years, my main job was to keep him out of jail." Tennis lore has it that one of his eight wives once confronted Nick with an ultimatum: Agassi or her. Of course, he chose Agassi, packed his bags and left.

And then, there's this blue-eyed-boy he simply calls Boris. "You gotta remember Becker is Becker. Michael Jordan is Michael Jordan. Lance Armstrong is Lance Armstrong. You've gotta be lucky to be born in the right era. Now you have Nadal."

Coaching two maverick contemporaries one after the other can be tricky. "Boris had his ups and downs, including being in that broom closet that cost him several million dollars. But Wimbledon was his life. When we reached Wimbledon he said: ‘Nick this is my home and we don't leave till the final weekend.' Andre had beaten him and when Andre and I parted and I took on Boris, there was that great match that Boris won at Wimbledon. Here I was sitting in the box with Barbara (Becker) on one side and Brooke Shields on the other. Only Nick can get his arse into that situation, commentated McEnroe."

On his 80th birthday next July, he plans to celebrate by skydiving with a US Navy strike fighter squadron.

A decent mimic, (he impersonated his pupils for us), Bollettieri says if he were an actor he would have liked to act like Al Pacino. But his personal life, with the eight wives, is reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor. "Which is why I am still teaching at my age, my friend," he says.

Before the US Open in September, Bollettieri plans to reveal his rollicking ride of a life in a book. And he won't edit out the juicy portions. "That is the only way to do a biography. It will have never disclosed facts about Becker, Agassi and Kournikova. Patrick McEnroe will do one of the forewords. It's gonna be one helluva book," he says.

I'd pick it up for sure Nick.