U.S. OPEN: WATCHING TENNIS THROUGH NEW EYES


Andre Agassi’s ‘Open’ Reveals Dark Underside of Early Training

I’m sure I wasn’t the only reader of Andre Agassi’s memoir, Open, to laugh when announcers at the US Open mentioned what a crime it would be if the legendary tennis coach, Nick Bollettieri, is passed over for the Tennis Hall of Fame.

A Prison for Teenagers

In Open, Agassi lambastes Bollettieri’s famous tennis academy as a “prison” where teenaged hopefuls are forced to exhaust themselves on tennis courts, live in “cell blocks” and act out in a cafeteria that resembles “a mental hospital where the nurses forgot to hand out the meds.”

And that’s just in the mornings. In the afternoons, students are taken by bus 26 miles away to Bradenton Academy, another windowless prison where “the light is fluorescent and the air is stale, filled with a medley of foul odors, chiefly vomit, toilet, and fear,” Agassi writes.

The school, more than the tennis academy, overwhelms Agassi with feelings of claustrophobia and failure. “At the Bollettieri Academy, at least I’m learning something about tennis,” he says. “At Bradenton Academy, the only thing I learn is that I’m stupid.”

Under Bollettieri’s management, however, even tennis takes a back seat. As the other boys tell Agassi, “our job is to keep Nick’s four sports cars washed and polished” because Nick is “a hustler, a guy who makes a very nice living off tennis” while stifling his students’ growth.

Worse, Nick reminds Andre of his tyrannical father, Pops, a seeming tennis mentor who is, like Nick, “captivated by cash.” It never occurs to the former paratrooper Bollettieri that he’s really known for running “a tennis sweatshop that employed child labor.”

Grain of Salt

One reads all this with a grain of salt because by the time Andre is shipped off to Bollettieri at age 14, his need to rebel against Pops is about to explode. Afraid of his father’s anger, he knows he can act out against Bollettieri instead, so he begins donning his famous outlaw look — gaudy earrings, pink Mohawk, cosmetics and denim cutoffs (instead of tennis shorts) on the court. All this and more, Agassi acknowledges,  “represents a neat little fuck-you to my father.”

Still, his description of the school is heartbreaking.

Many of the students at Bradenton are failing, Agassi writes, but the teachers pass them all. “They don’t want to cross Nick. Bradenton exists because the Bollettieri Academy keeps sending it a bus full of paying customers every semester.

“The teachers know that their jobs depend on Nick, so they can’t flunk us, and we cherish our special status. We feel a lordly sense of entitlement, never realizing that the thing to which we’re most entitled is the thing we’re not getting — an education.”

Under the cloak of rebellion, a learning paralysis sets in. “In every class I sit quietly at my desk, staring at my feet, wishing I were somewhere else,” Agassi remembers, “while the teacher drones on about Shakespeare or Bunker Hill or Pythagorean Theorem.” He can’t tell the difference among any of them.

The System is Rigged

That’s such a classic definition of a student losing his focus, his interest in learning, even his ability to read, that we wonder how many other Bollettieri kids learned how “stupid” they were right alongside him.

Instead of family, or a savvy tutor, or a sympathetic teacher coming to the rescue, Bradenton abandons its students, Agassi tells us, to cope with boredom, mounting pressures to win every match and crippling bad habits as they bluff their way through one homework assignment after another. (An English teacher recognizes a spark of interest in Andre, but the system buries her efforts to help him.)

“We’re always behind on schoolwork and falling ever further behind,” Andre writes. “The system is rigged, guaranteed to produce bad students as quickly and efficiently as it produces good tennis players.”

The Bollettieri Academy website lists the many tennis champions who once attended his academy — Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, Maria Sharapova, Venus and Serena Williams are only a few — but one wonders if they and hundreds of other Bollettieri alumni also confronted challenges of academic malaise and neglect.

Functional Illiteracy

Agassi, though singled out for his gifts as a tennis player, isn’t alone as he drifts into functional illiteracy and drops out of school before finishing the ninth grade. He makes a deal with Bollettieri to begin touring early, gets his mother to complete a correspondence course that earns him a high-school degree and is plagued forever by guilt and failure, always worried that behind his outlaw image, he’s just a stupid jock.

No wonder Andre ends up building a $40-million charter school in an impoverished section of his hometown of Las Vegas.

In the book, Bollettieri makes a “makeshift truce” with Agassi, traveling with him on tour as a “sounding board” and, for a time, “honestly, a friend” — until Nick “puts the touch on me for money,” Agassi writes. This is after Nick sells the academy to IMG (in the book he complains to Andre that he did so for all the wrong reasons and lost money in the process). After spending “hundreds of thousands above the hundreds of thousands I’ve already given him,” Bollettieri is at least consistent in his regard for Andre. But that’s another story.

What Really Rankles

I think what really rankles me as a reader of Agassi’s book is not only hearing the US Open announcers praise Bollettieri as a great coach who’s destined for the Hall of Fame, but also finding similar praise elsewhere on the Internet.

At Tennis.com, for example, Tom Perrotta writes:

“I’m not going to waste much space stating the obvious: If Bollettieri doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame, then there’s no point in having such an institution. Whether you love or loathe his brash attitude, self-promotion, ever-present sunglasses, permanent suntan and unique definition of ‘marriage’ (he has had eight wives), he is — objectively, without any rational argument to the contrary — one of the two or three most important coaches the sport has ever known…”

Really. But what kind of coach is that?  When the kids in your charge are all of 14, shouldn’t you help them find balance in their lives, even (and especially!) if they’re destined to win big tournaments, as Agassi was?

As he grows older, Agassi aligns himself with better advisors — clearly “father figures” who understand his deeper needs and help him find himself, though that process takes decades.

But the reader keeps wondering: What about today’s students at Bollettieri and other “academies” for up-and-coming teenagers in all sports — kids stuck in “gulags” who spend eight hours a day training and four hours failing in class. Are they, too, passed on by uncaring teachers?

[Note: Today the Bollettieri Tennis Academy is now a part of IMG Academies, and Nick is still the spokesperson. IMG seems to have parted with Bradenton (which looks like a terrific preparatory school on its website) and brought in Pendleton School, an on-campus facility that in turn appears to be dedicated to providing a good education for its students on their way to sports stardom. So the question that comes to mind as one looks at these gorgeous websites is how much pressure from the sports world, the media, the families, the coaches and fans like you and me is still creeping in. Or have those pressures simply moved below the radar.]

‘Get a Little Better Every Day’

I did get one more laugh upon viewing a video at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy where Nick himself tells us the secret of his success: “You have to know how to read people,” he says. “Whatever asset I’ve had is the ability to look at somebody and know how to relate to that person and help that person get a little better every day.”

Uh-huh. Well, there’s no doubt that Bollettieri looked at Andre Agassi as a real cash cow early on.  Making Andre “a little better every day” meant that Agassi got better at tennis despite Bollettieri and the Bradenton school, then turned over “hundreds of thousands” of dollars to Nick.

I’m sure in the larger sense that we all share a concern that sports champions in the United States are admired as much for their entertainment potential as for their athleticism on the court or field or track.

But Agassi is saying that things don’t have to be that way. That’s why he’s still pouring his heart and soul, not to mention more millions, into his charter school for kids who are just at the age where good teachers and good coaches can make a difference.

New Priorities

Then I got to thinking about Kerri Strug, the Olympic gymnast who injured her ankle and went on to make her last vault anyway. She landed right on the worst part of that ankle and won the Gold Medal for America “before crumpling to the floor in pain.” At which point her spotlight-stealing coach, Bela Karolyi, carried her around to wild cheers from the crowd and took all the credit.  

Well, we are the audience and we are the ones cheering, so we’re the ones who can instill new priorities. It’s happening in pro football, after all: Coaches no longer allow players to “play through” symptoms of concussion — a small step, granted, but important — and fans have applauded the decision.

With more books like Agassi’s Open, maybe “academies” will provide a well-balanced education to up-and-coming young players, making them equipped to explore the whole world instead of one small part of it.

Had such priorities been in place with Kerri Strug, the US Olympic team would never have allowed such an injured player to continue. The coaches would have taken her out of the competition the instant they spotted her damaged ankle.

Then a message would have gone out to millions of young viewers that risking your health for temporary glory is not worth it, and that future Hall of Fame coaches are here to help players really and truly “get a little better every day.”

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