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The Rediff Interview/Nick Bollettieri
June 17, 2004
When he talks, words tumble together in a breathless rush; it's almost as if he is in a hurry to get back on court.
Legendary tennis coach Nick Bollettieri fielded rediff.com's phone call from his Florida headquarters -- and even before Managing Editor Prem Panicker could get a question in edgeways, he asked, "Have you been following the French Open?"
Um. Not really.
"You should -- you would have seen the faces of the future."
The legendary coach, it turned out, was referring to three of his students who came up with break-through performances at Roland Garros: Xavier Malisse, Tatiana Golovin and Sesil Karatantcheva.
Malisse, 23, (who also reached the round of 16 in the Men's Singles) won the Men's Doubles in tandem with fellow Belgian Olivier Rochus, defeating Australian Open champs and hometown favorites Fabrice Santoro and Michael Llodra.
Golovin, 16, paired with Richard Gasquet to win the Mixed Doubles title, defeating 2002 champs Cara and Wayne Black of Zimbabwe.
Karatantcheva, 14, won the Girl's Singles title without dropping a set.
It's not quite as sweeping a record as say 1987, when the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy had 32 students in the main draw of Wimbledon and 27 at the US Open -- but he leaves you in no doubt that he savours every single success his wards get.
Bollettieri founded the eponymous academy in 1978, conceptualising it as a full-time tennis boarding school dedicated to preparing students in an environment that combines intense tennis training with a specially designed academic curriculum.
Over time, and with the teaming up of Bollettieri with IMG founder Mark McCormack, the one-time tennis academy has grown into a multi-sport training complex that, Nick maintains, is "the best in the world, bar none."
Over phone, during a brief interlude between an early morning training session and a mid-morning one, Bollettieri spoke of his involvement -- "possible involvement" -- with IMG Bharata.
IMGB Chairman Andrew Krieger said the other day that an Indian champion at Wimbledon or the US Open was not an unrealistic dream.
You have hundreds of millions of people in India -- and sheer numbers alone should increase your chances of producing a champion. The chances are pretty good, actually.
And yet these hundreds of millions have not in the 50-odd years of our independent history produced a champion.
You've got the numbers, but the numbers are only a small part of the story. What you do not have as a country is a nationwide system, a culture, which breeds champions. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don't have a system in place, and if that system is not geared to produce excellence, and to produce excellence consistently, the talent won't get you any place.
And you have a lock on that system?
I have a system, yes, which I use here in Florida. It recognises the need to have a template for training that is scientific, tested, tried, and which works. It also mandates that within that template, individual needs differ. For instance, Jim Courier and Pete Sampras were both NBTA alum -- but their playing styles were radically different. Obviously you don't train a Sampras like you do a Courier.
A coaching system that works in one that has a basic pattern to it, but which also takes such special needs into consideration. The idea is to bring out the best in each trainee, and you don't do that assembly-line fashion.
Why do you suppose Indian players -- Ramanathan Krishnan, Ramesh, Vijay Amritraj, Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi -- have shown world class talent, without ever being able to go the distance?
India has produced some good players -- I am aware of them, their names and what they've done. But I haven't worked closely with any of them, so I can't tell you why they never really made it to the top. But I've worked with tennis players all my life, and from that experience I'd say if a player is good enough to break into the top 50 or top 20 or whatever but doesn't go beyond that point, what is missing are the real weapons, the stuff you need to compete against the very best.
Also, at the highest level it is a mind thing. You need a tremendous degree of mental strength to be able to compete at the highest level, week after week after year, and you don't get that by just hitting a few practice backhands.
Here in the US, you have an ingrained tennis culture, your system is a product of that culture. We don't have that in India - do you reckon if you transplant a system that works well here, it will take root in Indian soil?
I don't see any reason why the Bollettieri system won't work in India. At our academy in Florida, we don't deal just with Americans -- we cater to dozens of people, trainees, from around the world -- people from different countries, cultures, look at our kids who won titles at the French this year, one Belgian, one French, one from the former Russia. We take all that into account when we train them. So yeah, the system will work -- in India as well as it does in Florida. Yes it is a different country, a different culture, so that is something our coaches will need to understand and adapt to.
You say 'our coaches'. Will you be directly involved in the Indian operation?
If a Bollettieri coach is involved then I am involved -- I hand pick our coaches, I train them, I work with them on a daily basis.
About my personal involvement, those things have to be decided. Andy Krieger is my friend, we have talked about this, but then I am Nick Bollettieri, I don't do anything piecemeal. Either I am the man in charge or I am not the man involved -- there are no half way measures with me. So if I am in charge of this Indian operation, I will be fully in charge, fully involved, everything about it will be my decision alone -- the nature of the programme, the coaches, everything, I will be hands on. Completely.
How much of a synergy do you see between the Florida academy and the Indian one?
Oh, a tremendous amount, especially if I am fully in charge. Not just in the sense that coaches from here will go there, and will use programmes we have perfected here. But also in the sense that athletes from there will come here to train, players from here will go there for training, it will make for a more rounded experience for both sets of trainees. Besides, I intend to have a web site where each trainee has his or her space, and I'll work with the trainees through that web site, even when I am not physically there.
You said discussions are on about your personal involvement. What's your personal take, though -- does the project excite you enough for you to want to be part of it?
Absolutely, I am intrigued by the project and I am very keen about it and very interested, yes, but it is either Nick Bollettieri who calls the shots, or I don't take up a project. Once all that is discussed and decided I'll have a better idea of what exactly I am going to be doing -- but yes, going to India, finding the hidden talent, that can be pretty exciting and I'll say I am intrigued by the prospect.
Image: Imran Shaikh