Coaching: new insights

Renowned tennis coach Nick Bollettieri interacting with kids during a special camp at the R. K. Khanna Tennis Stadium in New Delhi recently.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Nick Bollettieri admits that he had a vision to achieve coaching excellence and the perseverance to pursue it. He was suitably unorthodox as well, to be successful. Instead of trying to impose himself on his wards, Bollettieri had the good sense to listen to them, irrespective of their age, and win them over. By Kamesh Srinivasan.

Ten of his wards have gone on to become world No.1! No wonder Nick Bollettieri is called the ultimate tennis guru.

From a man who had no clue about the ‘grips' on the racquet handle, by his own admission, when he started off as a tennis professional, Nick Bollettieri has gone on to become a household name in tennis, thanks to his hunger to learn.

It was indeed a learning experience for dozens of Indian coaches when the famous guru landed in Delhi for the IMG Reliance scheme. The initiative would provide complete scholarship for four kids to start with, at his centre, spread over an area of 300 acres in Florida.

Bollettieri admits that he had a vision to achieve coaching excellence and the perseverance to pursue it. He was suitably unorthodox as well, to be successful. Instead of trying to impose himself on his wards, Bollettieri had the good sense to listen to them, irrespective of their age, and win them over. He recalls how he had to request the school principal to let Andre Agassi keep his long hair.

He is equally convinced about not changing the style of a player in a hurry, provided he had the drive to achieve. One good example is Brad Gilbert, who rose to be No. 4 in the world, despite an ugly game.

“A lot of times you cannot judge a book by its cover,” he tells the Indian coaches whom he addresses with a lot of energy. He is very sure that they hold the key to the success of any programme related to Indian tennis.

“A lot of times, coaches talk before listening. You will be surprised how much you can learn by listening to the students. You have to become a better listener. When you do talk, don't talk too much. The less you talk, the less you have to prove,” he says. He also tells the coaches as to how 95 per cent of the kids gave up on sport around the world even before they reached the age of 13, owing to the negative impact of the parents and coaches.

“A lot of times you can understand what they can learn by opening up their heart and soul to what you are talking,” he stresses.

Bollettieri also gave an assurance that he would provide all material and videos of his methodology free of cost through his website so as to help the Indian coaches grow and provide a healthy atmosphere for the game in the country.

“Remember, no two children in the world are alike. Sometimes, when you see a funny swing, a funny wind-up, if the result is going good, don't say too much,” he tells the coaches, some of whom may be strongly inclined to the copybook style.

“Look at their strategy, see how they play, rather than saying you have got to change this, and you have got to change that,” says Bollettieri, emphasising the importance of not tinkering with the natural style of a youngster, even while trying to stick to the basics. He is quick to point out that Indian kids did not have a strong foundation in terms of athletic ability and were pretty far behind on the serve. “Look at Serena, and see how quickly she flashes the bottom of her racquet. Look at Djokovic's backhand, it is beautiful. Coaches, don't tell the students to take the racquet back. That is a no, no! Ask them to turn the hips and shoulder,” he gives a tip.

He goes past the technical part quickly to the more important goal of winning. He does not believe in the idea of playing at one's best.

“There is only one thing gentlemen, winning. That is what you preach. Does that attitude guarantee that you would win? No! You don't go out on a court as a soldier, but as a warrior. You do everything to win. Win fairly and squarely,” he says.

In the same breath, he warns the kids not to lose the respect of the opponent or the audience with their antics. He asks them to be wise, so as to make their opponents play twice as good as they can play.

“The kids today have no idea what it is to have an athletic foundation. If you don't know how to move and how to recover, you can't be a top athlete. Watch Nadal, with feet spread apart at least to the width of the shoulder. Richard Williams told his daughters to get to every ball that came their side, including the ones that were out! That is why the girls chase every ball,” he says, to highlight physical readiness.

“Their feet and hands work at the same time. When you look and think, it is too late. It has to be simultaneous. The physical eyes and the mental eyes have to work together,” he asserts. Making it simpler, he quotes the example of Bjorn Borg, who dominated the French Open and Wimbledon in his time. Borg had told Bollettieri once that his only goal was to get the ball over the net one more time than his opponent! “Athletic performance is the key,” he says, though having the courage to fight is equally important.

“I have fallen down so many times, but God gave me the courage to get up and keep trying. Remember, failure is a necessary part of life,” he explains.

He tells the coaches to keep it simple when it comes to communication, and be sharp in tackling the parents, who may not have realistic goals for their wards.

“I am learning every day. Parents are right there every second. You have to learn to deal with them. You have to use your head,” he says, explaining that a tennis coach has to don so many hats to ensure success of his wards.

He looks at the lighter side of life and recounts how he had to go through seven wives, when he spent 36 years on the road, travelling with players.

“It was just before Wimbledon. Was home for a week, after the French Open. One of my wives said, ‘ Listen, me and two daughters, or that rascal that you are teaching.' I took 30 seconds to take my suitcase and a little bag, and walk out with 4000 dollars. I left everything to my family. I worked with Agassi. I knew that if I didn't do what made Nick teach, I had to give up…”, he recalls.

He does a lot for the poor and has adopted a kid from Ethiopia. He was particularly moved to see poverty when he visited the Taj Mahal in Agra. “I realised how fortunate I am,” he says, even as he is captivated by the Taj, as he chats up with Sportstar.

He is pleased to be able to contribute to the youth development of Indian tennis in recent times. He has had Karan Rastogi and Yuki Bhambri visiting his centre regularly to get better with every trip. He firmly believes that unlike many Indian juniors, Yuki would make the transition to the professional world smoothly. Of course, he points out that the lack of a strong physique was a distinct disadvantage for the Indian players as compared to those in the Europe and US. “If you don't have the height, you have got to have a darn good game, with good movement, good recovery and no weakness,” he says.

“I believe that Yuki has all the weapons. He has got be brave and come forward more. He is a good volleyer. He has got to accept the fact that he would not be a top professional from just the baseline. He is too nice, but has to be very competitive on the court,” Bollettieri says with conviction.

College tennis in the U.S. does a world of good to your game, and builds you up nicely for the professional tour. However, except for Mahesh Bhupathi and Somdev Devvarman, Indian players have been lost to the good life of the US and have generally forgotten about the game over the years.

“That is going to happen all the time. A lot of them don't have financial support to pursue a professional career,” he says.

John Isner was beaten in the NCAA final by Somdev Devvarman, but the former has gone on to be a top professional, while the Indian struggles to break into the top-100 of the world rankings.

Bollettieri points to the huge height advantage of Isner and his big serve, even as he refuses to comment on Somdev for the simple reason that he does not have enough data to analyse him.

He says, “good players knocking out good players,” was the secret of the success of his centre. “If you put four soldiers together, they will come out as warriors. They will find a way. They compete and get better.”

There is a lot of excitement about Maria Shishkina, an 11-year-old girl who trains at his centre these days, but Bollettieri says that it would not be easy to get the next world No.1 from his stable. He says that in the era of Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, it was difficult for others to even entertain big dreams.

The question at the U.S. Open this year, he says, would be whether Federer can get the edge back.

“If the lower back is hurting, Federer is not in a position to hit an offensive one-handed backhand. That is tough in today's game, especially against people who can hit two-handed cross court. Guys like Nadal can pound your backhand. I don't count Federer out, but at the U.S. Open and the Australian Open he has to get the edge back,” he explains.

Teaching the coaches is very dear to his heart. “The player, parents and the coach make the pyramid. How do you make the pyramid work? That is not easy,'' he says.

Nick Bollettieri is clear that his long overdue visit to India has happened at the right time, as it would have been futile to venture into a programme without the healthy financial backing offered by IMG and Reliance.

“It is probably better that I didn't come too soon,” he remarks, in his inimitable style.

If you want to know more about Bollettieri and his methods, you have to wait till September when his authorised biography, a more comprehensive second book on his life, after ‘My Aces and Faults,' would be out. It would feature 160 interviews with players like Boris Becker, Andre Agassi, Maria Sharapova, Anna Kournikova, Mary Pierce and a variety of other people, including his eight wives, who have been influenced by him.

“Patrick McEnroe will be one of those to write foreward. It will be an unedited book and I will not see it till it is published. The author has gone back to find some of my school mates, college mates etc. The impact that I have made on people's life. Some are surgeons. How did Nick help you? How did Nick destroy you? It is going to be a hell of a book,” he assures.