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Bollettieri Basking In Jock Paradise

May 1, 1996

BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) _ As if his crocodile skin needs more sun, Nick Bollettieri lays a silvery round reflector, big as a hula hoop, on the ground outside his office and adjusts a beach chair to maximize the rays bouncing onto his back.

From that comfortable spot, his wraparound sunglasses in place, he snaps orders to his staff, takes phone calls, oils his body, takes more calls and micromanages everything at the booming Bollettieri Tennis and Sports Academy. The old stomping ground of Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Monica Seles, once the site of a tomato patch, has evolved into a jock paradise of tennis, golf, baseball and soccer, with more sports coming.

Young athletes from every state and 40 countries mingle and mangle each other’s languages. They live in dorms, go to private schools, eat together in the cafeteria. They fool around like kids away from the blue courts and lush green fields, but when it comes to sports, they play with a passion. Bollettieri wouldn’t have it any other way.

He calls the academy ``the world’s toughest playground,″ and that’s no empty boast by the ex-paratrooper. The place has the feel of a friendly boot camp, complete with strategy sessions that seem like battlefield briefings.

But there’s more than just the next generation of tennis titans roaming around, or professionals like Boris Becker, Steffi Graf and Petr Korda in for a tuneup. There are middle-aged weekend warriors who take their games seriously, men and women who come to be pushed to the limit by the same kind of expert coaches training the elite athletes.

They learn the first day, in the thick heat, about cramps that can violently seize every muscle, and they realize too late why all the kids lug jugs of water to gulp on every break.

They’re doing it all, just like the kids and pros, loving every minute, and, for some, it’s doing them in.

``It’s a little too hard, in a way, because of the pros involved in it,″ said Mark Kather, a 40-year-old engineer from Denver who stayed a week recently during spring training to sharpen his baseball skills for an adult league at home. ``It’s intimidating. The coaches are pushing the pros, so you get pushed with them.″

The academy gets its reputation from the stars who have emerged, and it offers scholarships worth about $26,000 a year to nearly 30 percent of its 300 full-time juniors to maintain the flow of stars. Profits come from the 400-500 kids who pay $795 a week for summer camp, plus the increasing number of adults coming in at the same price for a week or two year-round.

``We’ve been known as a facility that molds or creates champions,″ said academy vice president Ted Meekma. ``Our main objective is to help the better-than-average junior player prepare for a college scholarship. Because we have produced a lot of professionals, we get a particular crop of exceptional players. We want to make those into champions.

``But everyone who comes here for the full-time program is one of the better players from where they’re from, and they all want to be that next champion, that next professional.″

Each day, a new fence or road or building goes up _ 117 new condos at $120,000 to $140,000 are for sale _ and there are plans for hockey, figure skating, basketball, gymnastics, softball and women’s field hockey in the next few years.

The spinoffs are spurred by the ownership of International Management Group, which bought the academy from Bollettieri seven years ago for $7 million. IMG, the world’s largest sports management company, provides marketing and accounting expertise but doesn’t interfere with Bollettieri’s independent and idiosyncratic style.

Surrounded by the sound of hammers and the smell of freshly rolled tarmac roads, Bollettieri doesn’t sit still long. He pops up, inspecting the guard dog kennel, picking up stray pieces of paper, shouting out instructions about the placement of a sign. At 65, he has more energy than most teens.

He takes his search for the perfect tan to one of the 75 tennis courts, where he’s still searching for the perfect player. He examines with a jeweler’s eye his latest uncut gem.

Mark Philippoussis has been working with Bollettieri since the U.S. Open last summer, where the 19-year-old Australian extended Pete Sampras to four tough sets. At the Australian Open in January, Philippoussis beat Sampras with 29 aces in three sets.

Now Bollettieri is trying to take Philippoussis to the next level, the championship level, and believes he can eventually make him yet another No. 1 player to emerge from the academy _ a total player able to win on any surface.

Philippoussis already serves at up to 130 mph, the ball as small as a grape as it speeds across the net, as large as a grapefruit when it’s suddenly in the face of an opponent. For all his strength, though, Philippoussis has probably tapped only half his potential. The training, which focuses on speed, agility, quickness and endurance, is designed to let him play out long points, rush the net better, and become much quicker in every movement.

Philippoussis is going through his third grueling workout of the day, watched closely by two Nicks _ his father and Bollettieri _ who consult each other about everything he does. As much as Bollettieri loves the sun, Nick Philippoussis avoids it, standing in the shade a few feet away, covered up in jacket and shirt with a dour look on his face.

Also watching are some of the most promising players for the next decade. Kids like 13-year-old Adam Kennedy, a 5-foot-3 Beaver Cleaver look-alike with a game bigger than Agassi’s at the same age, and tiny, pony-tailed 8-year-old Tatiana Golovin, who wants to be ``like Monica Seles″ when she grows up. The way she hits nearly every ball to within a foot of the baseline, maybe she will.

``What’s important is that we always have our next ones coming, because if you don’t do that, you do what the New York Yankees did. You run out of ammunition,″ Bollettieri said. ``We have a farm system.″

It’s a system built on killer competition. As Courier described it in a video about the academy, it’s like being ``in a dog kennel fighting for your life. (Bollettieri) would walk around, and he was the dictator. We had a ton of respect for him, and a ton of fear of him, too.″

Just to remind everyone at the academy of who preceded them, Bollettieri has photographs of the youthful Agassi, Courier and Seles in every building.

David Leadbetter, golf guru to Nick Faldo and Nick Price among others, has his junior academy stocked with 20 golfers, ages 13 to 18, from seven countries. Adults who wander over for lessons are quickly humbled watching 15-year-old Maria Garcia Estrada of Spain drive 240 yards down the middle of the range.

``She shows every sign of becoming a very good LPGA player,″ academy director Gary Gilchrist said. ``It’s her mind-set during tournaments, the way she handles pressure so well. She really enjoys herself.″

The six batting cages at the baseball academy, directed by former Cleveland Indians coach Ken Bolek, were filled with major league prospects going into spring training.

``We’ve had players come down for a month, and some for 10 weeks, to prepare for reporting to spring training or in hopes of landing a job,″ Bolek said.

Nomar Garciapara, Boston’s first round draft pick two years ago out of Georgia Tech, stayed the longest and impressed everyone on the Red Sox with his more powerful physique, extra speed, and sharper hitting when he reported to camp. He’s moved up from Double-A ball to Triple-A in Pawtucket, and is regarded, at 22, as Boston’s shortstop of the future.

The three fields at the new soccer academy, run by 10-time MISL all-star Kai Haaskivi of Finland, are home to 30 players from Alaska to Macedonia to Brazil.

``The main focus of a lot of these kids is to get a college scholarship,″ Haaskivi said. ``They come here, don’t mind paying and working hard, and hopefully it pays off a year or two down the road with a (NCAA) Division I scholarship. And now there’s the new professional league, and some of our kids will go on to that.″

At the hub of all the academies is the new adidas International Performance Institute, where every athlete works out with cutting-edge equipment and training programs specifically designed for their sport and age.

Everything an athlete could want is available, including medical specialists. When Philippoussis had foot problems recently, Bollettieri called in the podiatrist to ATP and NBA players, Simon B. Small, who flew down from Pennsylvania and fitted the teen-ager for special orthotics.

That type of professional help, along with a phsyical therapy clinic and masseuse, is also available to the juniors and weekend athletes at the academy.

The presence of the pros and prodigies at the academy sometimes tempers the other students’ longings for pro careers. They quickly see how tough the competition is, how rigorous the training is, and how much must be sacrificed to reach that level.

``It makes them get more realistic, and they start looking to a college career,″ Meekma said. ``We’ve put an awful lot of kids, about 95 percent of our long-term juniors, into schools on some type of scholarship. And we hope to do the same thing with the different sports as well.″

For Meekma, the coaches, dorm mothers, drivers and others who have been loyal to Bollettieri for years despite his demanding ways, the academy is more a mission and a way of life than a job. It’s a place to exceed expectations, to become, as Bollettieri said, ``something more than they think they can become.″

End advance for May 4-5

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