Sweetness And Light
7:17 am
Wed March 5, 2014

A Star Tennis Coach And The End Of The All-Around Athlete

Originally published on Wed March 5, 2014 12:26 pm

Tennis coach Nick Bollettieri's deserved acceptance into the International Tennis Hall of Fame came late in life, at age 82. What makes him so important is not his long career but how he changed the way we bring up our athletic children.

The ultimate young athlete used to be the boy (girls didn't have the chance then) who starred in several sports. The all-around athlete. But Bollettieri changed that.

He built the Bollettieri Academy in Florida in 1978, a boarding school where young players could go to study and play tennis, if not necessarily in that order. And what he did in tennis caught on across the athletic spectrum with kids — or, perhaps more accurately, with kids' parents.

It became vogue for an athlete to concentrate on one sport. IMG, the premier sports management agency, expanded his academy into other sports. Other schools started up that were basically only basketball teams with a classroom annex. In baseball, kids' teams started traveling like rock groups on tour.

The irony is that what Bollettieri begat for American tennis hasn't helped American tennis. Foreigners dominate the game we used to rule. But of course, part of the reason for that is that Bollettieri, ever progressive, started bringing in foreign players to his academy — and thereby hoisted American tennis on his own petard.

Click on the audio link above to hear more of Deford's take on this issue.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's talk about a different kind of a battle on the court. The International Tennis Hall of Fame elected new members this week, including a coach who's responsible for a number of current and future Hall of Famers - Nick Bollettieri. Here are just a few of his star pupils: Monica Seles, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova.

It's quite a list, and commentator Frank Deford says the coach's influence extends beyond tennis.

FRANK DEFORD: While Bollettieri's deserved acceptance into the tennis Hall of Fame comes late in his life - age of 82 - this is a man who's been married to eight different women, so the usual numbers don't necessarily apply to him. Likewise, although tennis is the only sport that he's ever been associated with, what makes Nick so historically important is that he, more than anyone else, is identified with one of the most significant changes in the way we bring up our athletic children.

He formed the Bollettieri Academy in Florida in 1978, a boarding school where young players could go to study and play tennis, if not necessarily in that order. Even before that, when I first met Nick at a beach resort on Longboat Key, some of the best young players were already flying in to work with him.

But Nick was not just innovative; he was a promoter. And what he did in tennis was hyped, and caught on across the athletic spectrum with kids - or perhaps more accurately, with kids' parents. Nick Bollettieri is to children in sport what the flamboyant baseball owner Bill Veeck was to show biz in sport, what the odds maker Jimmy the Greek was to gambling in sport.

The ultimate young athlete used to be the boy - sorry, girls didn't have the chance then - who starred in several sports. The all-around athlete, the three-sport letterman. What Bollettieri wrought changed that. Now, it became the vogue for an athlete to concentrate on one sport, and never mind if doctors say it's not a good idea for a child to constantly use the same muscles.

IMG, the premier sports management agency, bought out Bollettieri and expanded his academy into other sports. Other new, more ersatz schools popped up that were basically only basketball teams with a classroom annex. In baseball, kids' teams started traveling like rock groups on tour. And summer camps - remember when camps were where, if you were lucky, you spent a few weeks out in the woods, doing lots of different stuff? Remember the old Allan Sherman song: Hello Muddah. Hello Fadduh...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO MUDDAH HELLO FADDUH")

ALLAN SHERMAN: (Singing) Hello Fadduh, here I am at Camp Granada. Wait a minute, it stopped hailing. Guys are swimming. Guys are sailing. Playing baseball, gee, that's better...

DEFORD: Now, a kid not only goes to a sport-specific camp; he goes to a position-specific camp. There are quarterback camps. It's all very vocational.

And, then, the irony is that what Nick Bollettieri begat for American tennis hasn't helped American tennis. Foreigners dominate the game that we used to rule. But of course, part of the reason for that is that Nick, ever progressive, started bringing in foreign players to his academy, and thereby helped hoist American tennis on his own petard.

GREENE: Commentator Frank Deford - he's here every Wednesday on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO MUDDAH HELLO FADDUH")

SHERMAN: (Singing) Dearest Fadduh, darling Muddah. How's my precious little bruttah? Let me come home... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.