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Nick Bollettieri, Groomer of Tennis Champions, Dies at 91

Nick Bollettieri, who never competed in elite tennis but was once the world’s most famous tennis coach, developing 10 players who reached the No. 1 international ranking in singles, died on Sunday at his home in Bradenton, Fla. He was 91. David R. Legge, a journalist who is writing an authorized biography about Bollettieri, confirmed his death. Legge said Bollettieri began having renal problems several months ago and that his health had deteriorated since then.

Bollettieri was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., in 2014 as a “contributor” to the game. He joined only three others honored solely for their coaching, the longtime Australian Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman and two other Americans, Vic Braden and Dr. Robert Johnson, an advocate for African American junior tennis who mentored Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe.

Bollettieri co-founded the Port Washington Tennis Academy on Long Island in 1966, its star pupils including John McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis.

In the early 1980s, he opened the Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Fla., on what were then tomato fields, pioneering the concept of live-in facilities for promising junior tennis players. He sold it in 1987 to the sports agency IMG. Now known as the IMG Academy, it tutors young athletes in many sports and has dozens of tennis courts for the Bollettieri Tennis Program. Bollettieri, who founded that program, became its president.

Serena and Venus Williams, Monica Seles, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Maria Sharapova, Marcelo Rios and Boris Becker are among the players who trained or boarded at the academy.

Nick Bollettieri spoke to young players at what had been his tennis academy in 2013; he had sold it to the IMG sports agency in 1987, but remained president of the Bollettieri Tennis Program. Credit…Edward Linsmier for The New York Times

Bollettieri was known for a hard-driving style. As Sports Illustrated put it in 1980: “He yells at kids, insults them. And they work harder. He grabs players and orders them off the court. And they work harder. At junior tournaments, when the Bollettieri contingent arrives, the other kids look at them as if the Marines had just landed. They are the products of a tougher sort of training.”

Nicholas James Bollettieri was born on July 31, 1931, in Pelham, N.Y., in Westchester County. His father, James, was a pharmacist, and his mother, Mary Rita (DeFillipo) Bollettieri, was a homemaker.

He graduated from Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., in 1953, and then saw military service in an airborne division. After his discharge in 1957, he attended law school at the University of Miami. To earn money toward his tuition, he taught tennis at area courts, charging $1.50 for a half-hour lesson, though his experience was limited to some play as a teenager. His first students included Brian Gottfried, who went on to an outstanding tennis career.

Bollettieri built his Bradenton, Fla. academy on what were tomato fields. He pioneered the concept of live-in tennis camps. Credit…Lutz Bongarts/Bongarts, via Getty Images

Bollettieri quit law school after one year and worked during summers at the John D. Rockefeller Estate in Pocantico Hills, a hamlet in the Westchester town of Mount Pleasant, and winters at the Rockefeller-owned Doral Beach hotel in Puerto Rico, becoming its tennis director. He returned to Florida in 1978 and became an instructor at what was then the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort in Longboat Key before opening his academy in Bradenton.

The ABC News program “20/20” profiled the academy in its early years, bringing it national attention.

In 2014, Bollettieri was giving private lessons at $900 an hour.

“Nick is one of the youngest, most passionate guys on the planet,” Jim Courier, who had won four major singles titles, told The New York Times at the time. “No baloney. He’s not doing it for the money. He loves making a difference and getting meaning from it. As corny as that sounds, it’s true. He has family and more wives than anyone should ever have, but Nick is someone who wakes up in the morning and craves going to the office. It’s what keeps him going.”

When Bollettieri was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2014 as a “contributor” to the game, he joined only three others honored solely for their coaching. Credit…Carsten Rehder/picture alliance, via Getty Images

Bollettieri’s survivors include his eighth wife, Cindi Eaton; his children from various previous marriages, including his daughters, Danielle Bollettieri, Angelique Bollettieri, Nicole Bollettieri Kroenig and Alexandra Bollettieri; his sons, James, Giovanni and Giacomo; and four grandchildren.

Bollettieri was the instruction editor of Tennis Magazine and published the memoirs “My Aces, My Faults” (1996, with Dick Schaap) and “Bollettieri: Changing the Game” (2014). He was the author of the instructional book “Nick Bollettieri’s Tennis Handbook” (2001).

In his later years, Bollettieri cut down on his schedule and did his coaching on indoor courts.

“Today the whole world is playing tennis, and many years ago there were about six countries,” Bollettieri told The Times in 2014. “Now we are competing against the world, so it’s much more difficult for me when somebody comes up and says, ‘Nick, tell us about another champion.’ I’m very reluctant.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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