Peter Bodo's TennisWorld - Jocko Homo
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Jocko Homo 12/20/2006 - 4:24 PM

[Ed. Note: Red Ayme: Do not read this until after Xmas. Love, Santa.]

Howdy. Not a whole lot of dust gathering under my feet these days, and I'm eagerly awaiting the next day that I can wake up to sunlight. I left the IMG Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., at 5:15 AM, and I have a travel tip for any of you contemplating a trip to Tampa anytime soon. It features what might be the most confusing, work-in-progress, mismarked (always a good one!) road system I've seen in a long time. Can't remember the last time I got lost on what appears to be an easy, almost straight shot - all  on highway. It's no fun in the pre-dawn hours when you've got a plane to catch.

NbtaI hadn't been to Nick's academy in some years, and the place has changed from a distinctly underwhelming, almost industrial-grade facility consisting of a vast grid of tennis courts, a pool and a few low-slung, bungalow style outbuildings into a combination resort and NFL-worthy training complex, complete with an indoor basketball arena, a state-of-the-art training and fitness complex (the International Performance Institute) and a golf school.

But there's a parallel universe feel to the place to the place now. You enter through wide drive leading to a manned gate house; the security guard either opens the gate or asks  your business and issues you a parking pass. Inside, instead of the usual assortment of retirees and pasty-skinned tourists and well-dressed golf nuts, you see kids - all kinds of kids, in flip-flops and tennis outfits, belly-baring jeans and even ski caps. It's like the sophomore class of Walt Whitman High School in Anywhere, USA, laid siege to a resort, drove the old folks out, and started running their own show.

I'd no sooner walked into the reception area than Brad Gilbert came in through the glass doors on the far side, phone pressed to his ear. He informed me that before we could talk about Andy Murray or conduct an interview, we had to jump in the car and run some errands. Nick had asked Brad to pick up a Christmas present for one of his trusted lieutenants, Red Ayme, who mostly works with Tommy Haas these days. Red fancies "Philly Cheesesteak"  (think Checkers, or Sonic), a local fast-food place, so Nick was giving him a gift certificate to the joint.

Brad asked the manager at the counter if they issued gift certificates and learned they were available, $5 per coupon. The guy did a double-take when Brad asked for something like 30 of them. We ordered sandwiches, too, and caught up a little while we waited. Brad's a great guy; he's funny, irreverent and impish, and he's got no airs or pretensions to grandeur, and he'll talk sports with anybody, for as long as they 've(or he) got. He's a lot like Nick, who was a mentor to him, and to whom Brad is fiercely loyal. They're cut from the same cloth; each of them has a touch of the street-smart hustler and not a snobbish, arrogant bone in his body.

Brad thinks that the thing tennis most needs is a commissioner, citing the success of the NBA's David Stern. "You need a guy who'll crack the whip and make the tough calls, like Stern did in the Knicks fiasco (a reference to the recent on-court NBA rumble between the Knicks and Denver Nuggets, in response to which Stern swiftly handed out significant suspensions). And it shouldn't be someone from the tennis trenches, but a hard-nosed guy who knows and understands business, too."

We both agreed the guy who most closely fits that description at the moment is Arlen Kantarian, currently the CEO of the USTA's Pro Division. Still, it was relatively idle talk; it's hard to imagine the entrenched constituents giving up the little fiefdoms they've carve out, just to create unity in the game. Brad's son, Zack, who's heading to college to play tennis, was rooming with his father and Murray. So we took the sandwiches back to the condo and ate there. I'll have a fuller report on Gilbert and Murray after I transcribe the tape of our interview - the full monte, in an Q-and-A format, will appear in Tennis early next year, as part of a package on Murray's generation (it includes Berdych, Gasquet, Monfils, Djokovic and others).

Despite the massive upgrade at the IMGNTBA (take that, USTABJKNTC!), one thing hasn't changed. The nerve center of the IMGNBTA is still the covered walkway with the modest "stadium" court on one side, and the choice No. 1 practice court on the other. You can stand there in the shade, on the cement walk alongside the tall Gatorade water cooler, and watch, leaning on the fence on either side. It's where I first met Nick too many years ago to remember, and where I first encountered him yesterday. Same old Nick: shirtless, leathery tan, brilliant white teeth and bright, surprisingly light eyes, busting out all over with enthusiasm. He was working with Tommy Haas (Tatiana Golovin was on the next court over). He came over and embraced me, unleashing that trademark, gravely whisper: Peter boy, you gotta come see this new kid I'm working with. . .

NbI kidded Nick about the way he's been churning out player after player these days, each of them helping bury U.S. tennis into a deeper and wider hole. Half-joking, I said many of my readers were wondering what was up with that?  And was it true that Nick had made the USTA an offer to train eight youngsters, four of them hand-picked by the USTA and four by Bollettieri, with only one string attached: they had to be recruited as youngsters ("None of these 16 year olds," as Nick would put), and live the NBTA for 3 to 5 years.

Apparently, that was the offer, and it was turned down.

"I said to the USTA, 'You can take all the credit and get all the press. You just pick up the tab and we'll do the work." Nick wagged his head in disbelief and said, "Can you believe they wouldn't do it?"

I remembered that a few members of the Tribe had questions for Nick, so I asked about some of his top kids.

He's helping rain three promising juniors from Portugal, so it looks like TennisWorld spiritual adviser Miguel Seabra had better make sure his passport and visas are order. Nick reserved his highest praise for Michelle Larcher de Brito (the 13 year-old prodigy who won the Eddie Herr International  16-and-under at 12 last year). Near where were talking, a Japanese boy was lacing up his tennis shoes. Brad, who was jawing with us, said, "This kid is going to be awesome, probably the best player to come out of Japan since Shuozo Matsuoka. In fact, he's going to be better than Shuozo, for sure. And he's dedicated. He's up at like six every morning. You should see him! He eats these fish crackers and stuff."

Fish crackers and stuff, whoa!

It was both amusing and ironic to listen to Nick and Brad going on like this, partly because both of them have qualities I enjoy and value - frankness, animation and a blithe disregard for urbanity. Each of them, and Nick especially, is an easy mark for ridicule in the crowd that's awfully concerned with style points, even though the preoccupation doesn't earn them any, either, except among each other. And that's where the irony comes in. Brad is coaching a Scotsman, and Nick is as good example of an internationalist as you'll find in tennis; kids from the world over don't flock to the NBTA solely because Bollettieri is a dodgy, self-promoting, shades-wearing , opportunistic fraud.

Pretty soon, Nick was dragging me off to see his new War Room, a state-of-the-art internet center where Bollettieri's campers can review any match they recently played, on video, and then break down the actual footage into a kind of visual stat sheet, not only tallying things like unforced errors and errant first serves, but seeing them. You know what it's like to see a video of yourself hitting nine consecutive backhand passing shots over the fence? You can do it at Nick's.

Nick, BTW, is still on the court every day, pretty much from dawn til dusk. Awash in pro players and hotshot juniors, the academy has a pleasant and infectuous jocko homo vibe, driven by his loyal, former proteges, from Tommy Haas and Max Mirnyi to Serbian doubles specialist Nenad Zimonjic to Maria Sharapova.

In the afternoon, I watched Murray and Gilbert practice, and then we all went over to the IPI. By the time I wrapped up our work, it was almost suppertime, and dark. There were some kids by the pool - teen-age campers, playing cards, messing around with computers, talking on their cell phones, parading around in their hip-hugger jeans and faux hip-hop gear, some of the girls bearing the unfortunate results of what appeared to be their first experiments with eyeliner and lip gloss.

I walked through the nerve center, where the lights were on over the two show courts. Nick was on the stadium court, dressed in a sweatshirt now, supervising a workout between two pros and a player. The player was a girl, hitting groundstroke rockets off both wings and popping in a decent little serve. I paused, and Nick introduced me to the kid, whose name is Greer Glodjo. I lingered alongside her mother, a chiropractor named Deidre Collette, chatting. Soon we were joined by Collette's husband  and Greer's father, Arman Glodjo, a mathematician and inventor.

We watched Greer working out. She beamed when she hit a winner and we all clapped. She ran like a deer, rallying with and even hitting winners against one of the pros, Reggie Moralejo. Greer seemed to really connect with Nick, even though he cut her no slack and asserted his authority if she started to hit lazy or flawed shots. At the end of one training segment, Greer and Reggie were both up at the net, exchanging volleys. They kept the ball in play, almost exclusively in the air, for a combined 94 volleys, and everybody collapsed in joy and laughter when the last ball was mishit and died in the net. That's right, ninety-four.

Oh. Did I mention that Greer Glodjo is six years old?

Nick is 75. I'll bet he'll be in the Player's Box at the U.S. Open, if and when Greer makes her debut there.

I said good-bye to Nick, told him it was to visit the again. I wished him luck with Greer, and said I had a funny feeling I'd seen this movie before. "You'd better stay in shape, ou're not getting any younger, you know?"

Nick laughed, but there was a note of wistfulness in his voice when he said, "Peter. There's never going to be another place like this, ever."

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Posted by Chris Lewis 12/23/2006 at 12:21 AM

Great post, Pete.

I’ve been without a computer the last couple of days so haven’t been able to make a contribution. I would’ve loved to, though, as the subject of tennis academies and the role they play in junior development is a fascinating topic.

Personally, I love the concept of tennis academies. As a kid, I would’ve given my right arm :-) to spend my days hitting balls with other good players. From the age of 9 or 10, I hated everything about the schools I went to. I spent far more time looking out windows wishing I was on a court than I did listening to teachers.

FTR, I’m all for early specialization in any field, not just tennis. For instance, if it’s evident that a child is a musical prodigy, I have no issue with parents who do all in their power to give the child every chance of actualizing his or her potential. But on one condition -- that the *child* wishes it for him or her self, and that he or she demonstrates the passion and the motivation to put in the necessary work. Needless to say, I’m hostile to the idea of parents driving their children when it’s clear that the child hates being driven.

In a normal family environment, I don’t think it’s possible for a child younger than 9 or 10 to make an informed decision about leaving home for an extended period in order to attend a tennis academy (or anywhere else).

However, if conditions at home make being away from it very appealing, I’m not opposed to a young child leaving that environment for a better one, but, even then, only if it's in accordance with the child's wishes.

Posted by Rosangel 12/23/2006 at 06:38 PM


I almost missed your post. Glad I didn't.

I hope you and your family have a very enjoyable Christmas.

Posted by kevoka 12/24/2006 at 02:12 PM

What intriques me is how any talent, not just tennis talent, is uncovered. As a parent, you may have the next chess prodigy in your house, but if you do not expose them to chess, they will not be able to express it. Ballet, music, fencing, gymnastics, you name it. Luckily, in the United States the schools, both public and private, do a pretty good job of providing this exposure in many area's.

In my mind tennis is an "elite" sport for three simple reasons: real estate, numbers and for a lack of a better word "pratice requirements". For example, one indoor basketball court (this removes the climate issue and allows for year round "training" in most of the United States) you can have upwards of 10 people at a time playing. The same applies to swimming, one decent sized pool can be used by a lot of swimmers at any given time.

An indoor tennis court (roughly same size as a basketball court) can only acommadate 4 people at a time. On top of it, pickup or drop-in tennis does not work as well due to the skill issue. In basketball you can have a good time even with a fairly large discrepancy in skill levels. Not so in tennis. The basketball skills that are acquired by reptition, can be practiced in isolation by a single individual (shooting, dribbling). In tennis (you can use a wall, or a ball machine $) but it really requires another person. Unless you are really lucky and know someone at the same skill level and determination level as you, the only sure way to get that other person is to pay.

This is why receation centers in the U.S do not build indoor tennis courts, but they do build indoor hockey rinks. So it falls into the domain of the private sector to provide them.This pretty much leaves it up to the parents (outside of perhaps So. Cal and Florida) to 1) expose their kids to tennis, and 2) to provide them with the playing oppurtunities.

Which, getting back to the first paragraph above is a big problem. If a kid is introduced to tennis at the high school level, it is too late for them to become competitive, let alone world class, since they probably wont even make the high school team. Without anyway to "catch up" ala Michael Jordan after getting cut from the high school junior varesity squad. He "caught up" by being a gym rat (usually by himself). Larry Bird did the same.

Posted by Chris Lewis 12/24/2006 at 11:18 PM

Kevoka, you raise some really interesting points. Too many to do them all justice in one post.

However, regarding the point you make about too few indoor courts in the US, you might find the following extract from an interview with John Alexander, a former Number 1 Australian player, of interest. It should be noted that the weather in Sydney & Brisbane, like Florida and Southern Cal, allows for year-round, outdoor play.


JOHN Alexander has watched and worried as more and more tennis courts have been ripped out, built on, lost. There have been about 1000 in Sydney. Another 300 in Brisbane. The former Davis Cup star says that the same thing happened in Britain 60 or 70 years ago — with disastrous consequences.

"The No. 1 issue for Australian tennis is the loss of courts — we have lost thousands of tennis courts in major metropolitan areas," Alexander says. "The reduction of tennis courts in the last 20 to 30 years has been monumental, for various reasons. It only becomes newsworthy when all of a sudden, shock horror, we only have one player in the top 100 and everybody wants to know why.

"It takes a long while to realise the damage of lost tennis courts. The immediate damage is a reduction in participation. The keen kid will still find a place to play, but … the base of the pyramid is much smaller and the peak of the pyramid much lower. It's a very, very simple dynamic."

(The Age 12/9/2006)


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