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Raquet University

Tennis Camps, from Nick Bollettieri's to Harry Hopman's, Turn Games Inside Out in a Couple of Long, Hard Days
Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96

The moment Dr. Doom strutted onto the court and began "chicken walking" to flex his linebacker-sized thighs, I knew I was in deep trouble. I got to thinking that, instead of winding up at a Bradenton, Florida, tennis camp, I had somehow taken a wrong turn into a Marine training base.

"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!"


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