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

NPR | March 5, 2014 5:36 a.m.

Contributed By:

Frank Deford

Tennis Coach Nick Bollettieri gives instructions to a young Anna Kournikova of Russia during a training session at his tennis academy in Bradenton, Fla., in 1990. Kournikova went on to become a highly ranked international player, but she ended her career at age 21 due to injuries.

Tennis Coach Nick Bollettieri gives instructions to a young Anna Kournikova of Russia during a training session at his tennis academy in Bradenton, Fla., in 1990. Kournikova went on to become a highly ranked international player, but she ended her career at age 21 due to injuries.

Simon Bruty, Getty Images

Tennis coach Nick Bollettieri’s deserved acceptance into the International Tennis Hall of Fame came late in life, at age 82. But what makes him so important is not his long career, but rather 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.

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