Tennis Camps, from Nick Bollettieri's to Harry Hopman's, Turn Games Inside Out in a Couple of Long, Hard Days
"Bend, bend, get that blood flowing," barked this would-be drill sergeant, wearing khaki shorts, boots and a safari hat, as if he was about to trek through the Sahara. "Come on, explode with those lunges. Really feel that stretch. Get down, lower. This isn't a resort!"
Over the next three days at Nick Bollettieri's Tennis and Sports Academy-cum paunch-busting labor camp, I'd hear instructors repeatedly shouting "This isn't a resort!" disclaimers, especially during their 30-shot "windshield wiper" drills, when students are forced to whirl from sideline to sideline like careening pinballs.
Gasping for breath and nearly collapsing each time an instructor hurled ball 25 or 30, I forgot about improving my above-average game. I had other thoughts, all of them unprintable.
"Get your ass moving, run, run, what do you think this is, Club Med?" yelled Nick's drill sergeants, watching me surrender to middle-aged fatigue. "Come on guy, sweat. Give me 10 pushups if you don't get to these balls, this isn't a f______ vacation."
My aching legs echoed this fact. The 2,000 balls hit daily by each student mirrored Bollettieri's motto: "The toughest playground in the world." The preparatory school for such wunderkinds as Monica Seles, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, this internationally renowned complex is strictly a sun- and sweat-drenched mecca for wanna-bes. No gourmet meals, lolling by a swimming pool or stocked refrigerators in Country French suites. Just hard work and pass the Ben Gay.
"Adults wanting to improve need a push, an emotional and physical jump start to reach that next performance level," says Chip Brooks, a 22-year veteran of battling faulty backhands. Director of the adult program (as the globe-trotting Bollettieri plays guru to scores of budding young stars in the United States and abroad), Brooks is a walking advertisement for the academy's "no pain, no gain" zealotry.
Nursing a severe toothache that will demand root canal work later that day, he stands courtside and says, "Our philosophy is to work within a player's style. We won't try to thoroughly overhaul and restructure someone's game, [because] all kinds of players, from beginners to the A-rated, can benefit from our three- and five-day packages. We just want to work, work real hard, on accuracy and consistency."
At 8 a.m., amid the excitement of embarking on a new adventure, none of Brooks' comments sounded intimidating to me. Every tennis player dreams of reaching that Promised Land, where he regularly smashes killer forehands and serves. But grouped with two other B-level players (the usual student-teacher ratio here is three or four to one), I'd recall that fantasy of ripping shot after shot, and soon ask myself: "At what price?" For the daily eight-hour regimen at Bollettieri's academy pits all your illusions and intensity against human ball machines. Wearing Nick's signature wraparound sunglasses and quick to make wiseass remarks about any lack of hustle, these octopus-armed instructors enjoy running students into the ground.
Especially during the 10-ball drills. Then, instructors like Rene Muzquiz, Calvin Cole and Mark Morrow are everyone's worst nightmare, showing an amazing inability to count properly. The balls flying at us, we could always depend on these jokesters to dissect our shots, and to mercilessly repeat, "seven... eight...nine...nine...nine...nine...nine...10!"
"Bollettieri's program is meant to beat up serious players; it isn't the right place for dilettantes, the guys who are just 'trying on' tennis," says Fritz Nau, who runs his own academy in Boca Raton, Florida. "For only when a player is falling apart, spiritually and physically, can a teacher see his weaknesses and decide what must be fixed. That's why a student has to really love tennis if he shows up at Nick's, or any other reputable school. An effective program is long, tough and painful," says Nau, who previously coached at Bollettieri's school for 10 years.
So be forewarned. Forget leisurely time-outs for even a drink of water or to otherwise recoup your strength between drills. Only one hour into Bollettieri's scorched-ego program, I was already hearing it about my stumbling, lead-footed approaches to backhands. "Shuffle those feet, then square your hips, shoulder and head towards the ball," came the commanding voice on the other side of the net. "Get your body weight moving forward into the shot. Move the racket back faster, then let your arm and racket go towards the target."
Attempting this recommended technique, I was the too-wristy nincompoop, unable to hit balls forcefully over the net. The years of running around my backhand to launch a big forehand finally caught up with me; I was suddenly a tennis Everyman. Just one more guy with a marshmallow backhand.
Bollettieri's spokesmen insist they don't radically overhaul your game, but that they work within the context of individual styles. In desperate need of more backhanded firepower, I quickly benefited from the academy's personalized student-to-teacher ratio. Mark Morrow, an instructor from another court, watched me struggle and came hurtling at me, offering tips on everything from the Continental grip to effective footwork. Taking me aside to provide this extra help, he stayed with me for half an hour, until the private lesson resulted in my whipping backhands deep down the sidelines. My sudden improvement was no big deal to Morrow. Used to giving students one-on-one attention whenever the need arises (in Bradenton, or at minicamps he supervises around the country), he only said to me, "Nice job. Now go back to your group and get to work."
In the next two days I'd see other instructors working individually with students. These upbeat coaches relished their work, committed to helping camp-goers during lunch breaks and after hours. "It's the Nick thing," says Nau. "He's driven to have the best academy in the world, and the instructors feed off that spirit. Nick has a magic for getting everyone--coaches and students--juiced."
Now armed with a decidedly "lethal" backhand, I was bursting with that Bollettieri-fed adrenaline. But while imagining a run at Wimbledon, I made a mistake prospective Bollettieri students should avoid. On the way back to my group, I stared at the Agassi incarnates, the seven- to 18-year-olds hammering balls on surrounding courts. Just watching a pint-sized, seven-year-old Russian girl pummel 80 mph serves brought me down to earth, fast.
Overcoming this jolt of middle-aged reality wasn't easy. Yet I somehow ignored all my aches, plus the fact that lunch was still an hour off, and began working on another gap in my pro-tour arsenal: the Milk-Dud serves I customarily fed to opponents.
"It's all in the toss, rolling the ball off your fingertips and getting the ball to the one o'clock position," insisted Calvin Cole, another young teacher with the patience of Job. "I know you're tired, but suck it up. Get the ball in front of you. Higher...higher...cock that elbow. Pretend you're hammering a nail."
I had heard all this before, from country club tennis instructors who had the misfortune of trying to overhaul my mechanics. But here I faced a more exacting type of pressure to succeed. Cole and his associates are so demanding, they're constantly singling out a student to hit ball after ball, even if that means fewer shots for the players just standing around and watching.
What that adds up to is more than a lot of extra bang for the buck. Under this sort of microscope, where teachers underscore your flaws with stiletto-edged barbs and demands for 10 pushups, you emerge with a new sense of purpose, an on-court toughness. Now ready to kick ass, to hit patented Bollettieri "put aways" in crucial situations, you scarcely care about those pushups. Assuming the horizontal position, the laughter from classmates ringing in your ears, you just do it, and stand up asking for 10 more.
This being the hi-tech '90s, video screenings are also used to impart the how-to of becoming a Bruce Lee "killing machine." Students are shown assorted tapes of Agassi, Sampras and Seles, mainly illustrating Bollettieri's "System 5." Elements of this teaching philosophy, which strategically divides a court into five zones and demands five types of backswings and follow-throughs, still escape me. But this stereophonic session wasn't a complete loss. I learned the different nuances of Seles' deep-throated grunting.
Once the lectures/pep talks end, it's on to a rather dreary cafeteria for lunch. Here, the fare is pure high-energy--the Bollettieri academy's take on running a marathon: plain pasta, grainy breads, assorted fruit salads and an occasional fish dish. There is limitless fresh lemonade, but in this relentlessly "fat free" environment, no desserts. At least not now. But a taste of la dolce vita is in the works.
To compete with resorts that offer tennis and sumptuous amenities for the entire family on vacation, Bollettieri is developing his "dream" sports complex. In sharp contrast to the Motel 6-styled rooms now offered, this 44-acre facility will feature luxury villas and condos, and a veritable ESPN network of sports academies. Along with on-site baseball, soccer and football instruction, another "king of swing" holds court nearby, at the David Leadbetter Golf Training Center.
Stringing all this together is vintage Balls-ettieri. The consummate visionary, Bollettieri had the foresight to build indoor courts--the only ones in Florida--when he launched the academy in 1978. Sunshine State critics laughed at him, mocking the project as "Bollettieri's Folly." But after lunch, instead of sitting on our derrieres during a torrential downpour, we practice various volleying skills in this all-weather bubble. Once again I'm bombarded with a nagging refrain of "Move, shuffle those feet, hustle, you lazy ____" as an instructor tries to shorten my backswing at the net. These fast-paced drills, with students charging the net, go on for over an hour, and by 3 o'clock I'm ready to drop.
After another round of serving 200-odd balls (which feels like 2,000) and one more video, I'm in my car swearing, "Screw it. I'm too tired to come back tomorrow." Yet as I relaxed in my hotel's sauna, reviewing this typical Bollettieri academy day, I began to fully appreciate the zen of Bollettieri "magic."
The drills are grueling, pushing students well beyond their preconceived physical limits. Yet as they withstand these rigors and reach the once-unimaginable "Right Stuff" territory, instead of their resolve weakening, it only hardens. Quitting isn't even an option. It becomes unthinkable.
So the next two days, I returned to the academy cafeteria at 7 a.m., foregoing the buffet feast at my hotel for soggy French toast and equally forgettable coffee. Both sessions were filled with 10- and 20-ball windshield wiper drills, and while I hit my shots with greater pace, this is of secondary importance. Just making it back for that final session is a bigger personal triumph. Barely able to walk, let alone run, I understood why the coaches call this third day "the make-or-break Doomsday."
But before heading for the nearest chiropractor, I'm still psyched to play "King of the Hill." In these mini-matches, where the winner keeps playing and losers retreat to the sidelines, I have a chance to show off my new skills. It's my U.S. Open, battling fellow group members, then vying against my worst tormentor, instructor Rene Muzquiz.
"Let's see what you're made of," he jibed, dancing me around the court like a yo-yo with his deftly placed ground strokes. I try to answer back, getting my weight into the ball as I've been instructed. Yet it's all to no avail.
After this spin doctor quickly dispatches two other campers, he and I go at it again. With a few Sampras-like forehands, I exile him to the sidelines. He mutters, swearing revenge. Then in our next go-round, paced by a furious exchange of missiles to the baseline, I chalk up another win. Now I'm ready for the Tour--that is, until he dethrones me with a 95 mph serve and a crosscourt winner. Laughing, he fires one final salvo. "Why don't you stay an extra day? You might learn something."
I undoubtedly would. Bollettieri's academy is top-flight. But having survived this three-day odyssey into Advil Land, I was already primed to take on the world. Besides, winning my share of points against Muzquiz was enough of a thrill. I'd spare him any further embarrassment.
Edward Kiersh is a Florida-based freelance writer.
Top Tennis Camps
Tennis and Sports Academy
The typical visit for adults is three days; instruction with room and board costs $660 from November through April, or $450 without accommodations. Five and a half days of instruction is $1,095, or $795 without lodging. If you can tolerate the heat, it's best to come during the off-season. There are fewer students, assuring lots of personal attention.
Off-season rates are $895, or $636 without accommodations, for the longer session, and $520, or $360 without lodging, for the three-day visit.
Call 800/USA-NICK or 941/755-1000.