Tennis stars gather to honor Bollettieri

They arrived from all parts of the globe. Japan, Belarus, Italy, Great Britain, and several points in between.

More than 300 strong, a horde of once-young tennis players who came here to take on the world returned to pay homage to the place where they honed their skills. And to honor the man who led them on their tennis quest.

They came to say hello again to Nick Bollettieri, the visionary whose dream paved the way to their success, whether it came on the tennis court or in life’s other endeavors.

They returned to the place where Monica Seles’ squeals took hold. They revisited the grounds where Andre Agassi first learned that image is everything, then discovered that he had much more than just flash to give the tennis world.

They came back to the place where Jim Courier, Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, Serena and Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova, Mary Pierce, Jelena Jankovic, and countless others learned the lessons that helped carry them to the pinnacle of success in the tennis world.

This weekend’s 30th reunion of the Nick Bolletteiri Tennis Academy not only brought back alumni who are heavy hitters throughout the tennis world, but it also served as a gathering place for some of the big hitters throughout the business world. There was a college president, the youngest partner at Goldman Sachs. There were doctors, lawyers, bankers, politicians, entertainers.

“I believe the biggest thing, now that I look back, is the impact we have made on people’s lives,” Bollettieri said as he stood in the midst of academy alumni renewing friendships. “Winning at Wimbledon, winning the French Open … that is a trophy. But here, my staff and I have made an impact on people’s lives. And their children’s lives.”

Over the years, three decades of youths trooped through the grounds where champions were made and characters built. Many of those same students traveled back to Bradenton with their families to take part in Friday night’s welcoming cocktail party. They stuck around Saturday for a day of golf and tennis before the reunion Gala Dinner at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota. Today there will be a Sunday brunch and farewells.

Among the former students on hand this weekend include Monica Seles, Mary Pierce, Kathleen Horvath, who broke Martina Navratilova’s record 84-match win streak at the 1983 French Open, Brian Gottfried, Max Miryni, Carling Bassett-Seguso, David Wheaton.

Jim Courier, Aaron Krickstein and Jimmy Arias are all playing a senior event in Arizona. Maria Sharapova and Anna Kournikova had prior commitments but sent their regards. Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena, stopped by to congratulate the 77-year-old Bollettieri.

Coming back to where it all began, they visited an academy that is far different from the time most of them labored there under the sun, and under the strict discipline that made the place notorious in those early days.

As many of the alumni walked the grounds of the facility that has mushroomed to more than 300 acres and embraces a multitude of sports academies, they marveled at the changes. Yet more than a few took time to glance at the small garage that has stood the test of time.

The garage is where Bollettieri once parked his Corvette. It was also where two teens, with music as much as tennis in their souls, would meet nightly until they were forced to stop. One would bang on the drums. The other would work over a guitar.

The drummer, Courier, would go on to be the No. 1 tennis player in the world. The guitar player in those sessions, was much better on drums than he was on the tennis court. Lars Ulrich went on to form the heavy metal band Metallica and is the group’s drummer.

Amazing is the core staff that has been with Bollettieri through the years.

Julio Moros was with Bollettieri when he arrived in 1977 from Dorado Beach to take a job at the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort. So was Carolina Murphy. Joining soon after was Ted Meekma and Greg Breunich. Those two are senior vice presidents of IMG Academies, the company that purchased the NBTA in 1987. Breunich is now Bollettieri’s son-in-law.

Gabe Jaramillo, Chip Brooks and Jose Lambert have been mainstays of the tennis instruction throughout the years. They have seen three decades of students pass through the doors.

What began as a small group at the Colony, quickly outgrew its space. Within a year Bollettieri, with a loan from Louis Marx Jr., bought a rundown dormitory to house his growing student population. By 1979, Mike DePalmer Sr., who was instrumental in bringing Bollettieri to the area, joined him to buy a tennis club in Bradenton.

A year later Marx loaned more money to enable Bollettieri to build an academy on what was a field of tomatoes on 34th Street.

“I often think how close I came to not getting this place,” Bolletteiri said about overcoming a bevy of obstacles.

It started by bringing together players from across the country, and eventually the world. Bollettieri recalls those early days when the best America had to offer came from one place.

In those early days, there were four students to a room. There was competition in the dining halls as well as the tennis courts.

Now there are 56 courts and hundreds of full-time students. Players who have played on the courts here have won more than 170 Grand Slam titles. Ten have been ranked No. 1 in the world. In addition to students like Tommy Haas, who grew up at the academy, players who have spent time at the facility to work on their games include Becker, Martina Hingis and the Williams sisters.

“There is no place like this to train,” said Mary Pierce, who came here at the age of 13 and went on to win four (two singles, two doubles) Grand Slam titles. “You have everything you need — tennis courts, competition, training facilities. It is very rare to have a place where everything is right there.”

Many of the early students, including Bassett, Horvath and Arias, actually lived in Bollettieri’s home. There were tales of cleaning floors with toothbrushes, standing at attention at mealtimes and lights out at 10 p.m.

“It was very disciplined on and off the courts,” Horvath said. “I recall having to go around the grounds picking up cigarette butts. I wasn’t done until I came back with a tennis ball can full of them.

“Nick was an incredible motivator. He also had a great eye for detail when it came to stroke production and technique. Even back then he had a sense for what was right and what didn’t make sense.”

Friday Horvath had her 9-year old son take a tennis lesson from Bollettieri.

It was just like old times.