Mary Pierce and Nick Bollettieri

From Nick Bollettieri‘s book, Changing the game:

When Mary Pierce first came to the academy in 1988, she was 13 years old and already had a blistering forehand. Her father, Jim Pierce, a belligerent man obsessed with getting his daughter to succeed, felt that the competitive envionment would help her improve more quickly. Although Mary lived in the dorms for some time, Jim continued as her coach.

Determined to maintain his control over Mary and her career, he soon pulled her out of the academy. Mary turned pro two months after her 14th birthday and started to play on the women’s tour. Meanwhile, her father was often abusive, unable to control his temper. He cursed at other players and their parents, and verbally terrorized Mary and her mother, Yannick. It got so bad that he was officially banned from tournaments. In the summer of 1993, Mary finally succeeded in getting a restraining order against her father, but she and her mother traveled with bodyguards for a while.

I know those were traumatic times for Mary, although personally, I have never had difficulties with Jim Pierce. We have always been able to talk to each other, and I credit him with the work ethic he instilled in Mary and for helping her develop the smashing “Bollettieri forehand”. I see him now occasionally, and he has become a gentler man, no longer afflicted by demons.
At the time, however, those demons plagued him and he often acted out in hurtful and damaging ways. With such a difficult background, it is no wonder that Mary was both a fierce competitor and a bundle of terrible insecurity about who she was and what she was capable of. During matches, when things didn’t go well, she often looked to her coaches for help, even though it was against the rules for them to advice to their players. She would also get down on herself, become irritated and tank matches when she an into difficulties with her opponents.

I followed her career from a distance. By the time she was 17, Mary was ranked among the top 15 women players in the world, and I saw that she had great potential to do better. At some point when we ran into each other at a tournament, I mentioned to her that she was always welcome at the Academy to train and feel safe.
Soon after, I received a phone call from her. She asked me to be her coach, and I agreed but I had conditions. I wrote her a note, “Mary, if I am to be your coach, there are two conditions that you must agree to: First, you are out of shape, in fact you are fat! You have to commit to a physical conditioning program that will get you into you top level of fitness. And second, I will stay with you until you not only believe in yourself, but also never need to look over to your support team, raising your hands in frustration and acting like a baby.”
I was deliberately blunt to put her on notice that our work together would not be a walk in the park. After reading the note Mary came to me with tears in her eyes asking why I wrote such hurtful things about her. My answer was very simple “It’s the truth and it’s my way or the highway.”
She agreed!

In 1994, our first full year together, Mary improved her ranking from No.12 to No.5 in the world. During the French Open, her road to the finals included beating defending champion Steffi Graf in two sets 6-2 6-2. Unfortunately she ran out of steam against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. That finish set the pattern for the rest of the year; she reached the finals of five tournaments, but won none.[…]

Mary arrived in early December to get ready for the 1995 Australian Open – it would be my first time here, coaching her and Boris Becker.
For the next few weeks Mary trained as if she were preparing for a Navy Seal mission. In addition to her two on-court workouts each day, she also spent two hours in our weight room. Mary continued to work hard over the holidays and her full-time coach Sven Groeneveld and her conditioning coach, José Rincon. But after I returned from a week of skiing in Aspen and met her in Australia for the warm-up tournament, she still hadn’t shed all of her extra body weight.

I confronted her about it and finally got through to her. That night, with a bit of help from Sven and José, Mary located all the junk food she had hidden in her appartment – her favorite indulgence was tiramisu – and threw it out. The next day she arrived for practice with a new attitude, all business and commitment.

Boris lost in the first round and generously told me to stay and take Mary to the championship. She breezed through the first three rounds in straight sets and dispatched Anke Huber, a German player who had given her problems in the past. In the quarterfinals, she faced Natasha Zvereva, a tough player from Belarus. I knew Mary could win, but I had a different problem. I had commited to hosting a Super Bowl tennis clinic in Florida and would miss the semis and finals.
Mary won against Zvereva as expected, and after the match I reminded her that I had to leave for the United States. I knew it would be difficult for both of us. I told her that she was ready – her game was technically close to perfect. The only thing she needed was confidence in herself to deal with adversity on the court, to look deep inside herself, not hope to find answer in the coaches’ box. She didn’t need me or anyone else to win the tournament. We both had tears in ours eyes as we hugged and parted.

Mary’s opponent in the semifinals was the No.3 player in the world, Conchita Martinez. I called Mary during my stopover in Hawaii and gave her the game plan Sven and I had worked out. I made it to bradenton in time to watch the match on television. I was on pins and needles, but I needn’t have been. Mary ruled the court, whipping Conchita 6-3 6-1. After the final point, when she did look over the coaches’ box, her arms were raised in victory and I knew the change had happened. At that moment, Mary came into her own; she finally accepted that she was a winner! I only wished I could have shared that moment with her by being there.

The finals were almost a foregone conclusion. She dominated Arantxa Sanchez Vicario 6-3 6-2 to win the Australian Open. I was in heaven. When she called me, I was momentarily at a loss for words I was so happy. Then I congratulated her on her victory and told her, “Remember what I put in my note to you? I told you that I’d stay with you until you can stand on your own two feet. Today, you showed not only yourself, but the entire world that Mary Pierce is a winner. You were perfect and now you’re ready to rely on your full-time coach, Sven Groenveld.” Then I added, “Go out, get the biggest tiramisu you can find and eat it all by yourself. You have earned it.”

Kei Nishikori

From Nick Bollettieri‘s book, Changing the game:

I have seen thousands of tennis players over the past 60 years and can identify only three who have had the gift of magic hands. I’ve already mentioned two – Xavier Malisse and Marcelo Rios. The third is Kei Nishikori.
I met and started to work with Kei because in the 1980s Arthur Ashe and I traveled to Japan to conduct a clinic for 500 youngsters. While there we toured many of the local tennis facilities. On the day of the clinic the skies opened with torrential rains, forcing us to move indoors. Arthur was panicked – how to deal with so many children at close quarters – but this wasn’t a challenge for me. We found a huge gymnasium and held two clinics, each for one hour with 250 participants. We had two lines running at the same time and each kid got to hit two balls. They all thanked us profusely.

I learned a few things that day about Japanese children. They were very polite, quiet and patient; but they watched our every movement and took in every word I spoke. They were so eager to learn, you could see their excitement as their eyes darted from me to Arthur to the interpreter and back again.

During our visit I was introduced to a kindly gentleman, Mr Morita, whose family was the largest shareholder in the Sony Corporation. He loved tennis and wanted very much for Japan to develop a steady stream of world-class players; His passion for the sport and confidence in me led to a fruitful relationship that continues to this day. At the time, Japan’s most successful male player, Shuzo Matsuoka, was in a class by himself. His highest ranking ever was No.46 in the world, but both Mr Morita and I believed that with focus, determination and funding, more could be achieved.

So Mr Morita dispatched Sato Nakajima to work at IMG academy and act as a liaison for Japanese players. He also began to send youngsters there, all sponsored by Sony. One of those players was 14-year-old Kei Nishikori. Kei, who didn’t speak one word of english at the time and had never eaten american food, housed in an apartment with seven other boys; not surprisingly, he was scared and took some time to feel comfortable. Not on the tennis court, though. I didn’t take me very long to realize that he had talent. He was extremely quick and had those magic hands of a gifted shot maker. Like Agassi and Rios, he possessed innate skills that can’t be taught, but need only to be channeled.

Mr Morita continued to support him. Today, Kei is not only the highest ranked player from Japan on the ATP tour but one of the most celebrated sports stars in Japanese history.
His able team includes IMG agent Olivier van Lindonk, who sees to his schedule and business affairs, and his personal coach, Dante Bottini, who is quiet and unassuming but understands Kei. They relate well to each other. I continue to participate in the role of team advisor.

I was especially pleased to see Michael Chang coming to town to join Kei’s coaching team. THe last time Michael was at the academy was in 1985 when he was 13 years old and training with his coach. Michael was a champion because of his movement, his recovery and his ability to avoid hitting defensive shots, not to mention an indomitable will. On the way to the 1989 French Open singles title, he had an epic match againt Ivan Lendl, overcoming leg cramps, fatigue and dehydration in a remarkable five-set victory.

Michael Chang

I watched Michael working with Kei and quickly identified what his plans were. He realized that magic hands were not enough but would make a big difference in combination with the right leg work. He showed Kei exactly how to load from the ground up which, in turn, got his racquet below the ball. This allowed Kei to aplly more height, depth and spin, especially when he was out of position and behind the baseline. In the past, Kei’s shots would land on the service line and get him in trouble. I applauded Kei’s decision to add Michael Chang to his coaching team, alongside his regular coach.

Can Kei really compete with the best in the world? I know he can! But, he must learn to truly believe in himself – exactly what Michael Chang yelled to him in his first round, five-set match at the 2014 Australian Open – and to know with every fiber of his being that he deserves to be on the court with the big boys. And he must deliver that as a potent message when he competes against top 10 players? I believe he will do it! Mr Morita and I will continue to cheer for Kei.

Photos by Tennis Buzz