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Would You Let This Tyrant Coach Your Kid?

The director of the documentary ‘Love Means Zero’ talks about tennis coach from hell Nick Bollettieri, toxic father figures, Andre Agassi and whether kids need participation trophies

We’ve all met someone like Nick Bollettieri. The 86-year-old tennis coach was influential in the careers of many young players, including Jim Courier and Monica Seles, running an academy that was like a proving ground for many promising protégés. He also was a tyrant. As a 1980 Sports Illustrated profile of Bollettieri put it, “To understand how Bollettieri teaches kids, it is important to know that he’s a former paratrooper, and that what he turns out on the court are little troopers, once-dear children transformed into steely-eyed tennis fanatics who scowl across the net.” But hey, he got results, right? And in a world in which results mean everything, we’ve learned to forgive bullying from our coaches and mentors so long as we end up champions.

If anything, it’s baked into our DNA: No pain, no gain.

But a new documentary confronts not just that philosophy but also the man who capitalized on it. Love Means Zero, which premieres on Showtime on June 23, is directed by Jason Kohn, who previously made Manda Bala (Send a Bullet), a documentary that examined Brazil’s ruthless kidnapping industry. With Love Means Zero, Kohn has found a subject only slightly less brutal: In a series of straight-to-camera interviews, Bollettieri is a contentious, outspoken blowhard who forcefully defends his methods, sometimes openly clashing with Kohn. Punctuating his flamboyant comments with a Dick Vitale-esque “Baby!,” Bollettieri comes across as an unfeeling monster whose only goal was shaping and possessing a collection of winners that would cement his legacy as one of tennis’ greatest coaches.

But Love Means Zero isn’t interested in simply giving Bollettieri a platform. Speaking with former pupils like Courier — as well as former champion Boris Becker, who teamed up with the coach late in his career when trying to mount a comeback — Kohn examines the price of competition, zeroing in on the fraught father-son relationships that Bollettieri cultivated with many of his students. The most complicated of them was the one he shared with his most brilliant protégé, Andre Agassi, who initially mirrored his mentor’s flashy, preening style — only to have their close partnership implode over ill-advised business decisions and hurt feelings. Agassi has refused to mend fences with Bollettieri — they haven’t spoken in decades, despite Bollettieri’s efforts to reach out — and their parting hangs like a dark cloud over Love Means Zero, constantly hinting at the emotional toll of this coach’s tough-love technique. (Agassi declined Kohn’s every overture to be interviewed for the film.)

Kohn recently spoke with me about his documentary, discussing his personal connection to Love Means Zero’s exploration of complicated father figures. We also discussed his thoughts about the best way to mold young athletes, reframing the idea of failure and whether he’d ever let his own kids attend Bollettieri’s academy.

One of your early jobs was working on Errol Morris movies like The Fog of War, and while watching Love Means Zero, I thought about some of the enigmatic, combative men that he’s profiled in his documentaries. I wondered if that was a coincidence.
I came up through Errol’s office — the lessons I learned will always be part of my process. But the challenges with Nick were unique. I didn’t completely understand the correct tack [to take] in the interview until the very, very end of the first day of shooting with Nick. I knew that it was going to be a challenge, and I knew that he was really mostly interested in kind of — how do you say this in the best possible way? — promoting a certain version of his story. But what I noticed at the very end of the first day was that when I started to argue with him more, he lit up — he got excited. There was this moment off-screen, in between one of the takes, where he was just like, “Oh boy, Jason and I are getting into it now! We’re fighting.” He was excited and happy.

All of a sudden, I realized that if I were to talk to Nick more along the lines of how I talk to my friends — we argue with each other in a loving way — that Nick could actually [embrace] that kind of confrontation and thrive in it. So the second day of the interview, it became a very specific idea: Let’s see how far we can get with just pushing back and arguing with him. Not in any kind of “gotcha” journalism way — I wasn’t trying to catch him in a lie or anything like that. It was much more about his performance: Was he going to finally be able to be honest about being hurt by some of the experiences he had, especially with Andre? His inability to just acknowledge that any of the conflict in his life ever touched him emotionally — that was a really difficult thing to get at.

Whether in real life or movies, we see a lot of hard-ass coaches who are ruthless in their drive to mold champions. Was Bollettieri’s meanness the secret to his success?
From what I saw — not only talking to Nick and his former players, but watching every interview with Nick and every interview about Nick — I’ve come to the conclusion that Nick’s real brilliance is in his flexibility. He was a different coach to each player, and he provided each player with exactly what they needed at the time.

With Andre, it wasn’t until Nick loosened up that their relationship started to gel. But when a player needed strict discipline and military-like training, he was there to provide it. When a player needed emotional support — familial love — he was there to provide it. When they needed a detached coach who just talked about technique, he was there to provide that.

I wish it was as simple to say that he had this one brand of coaching style, but that’s not what I saw at all. What I saw was an extremely dynamic individual whose level of engagement was extraordinarily impressive. Even with me: When you’re in the presence of somebody who’s completely engaged, it’s a thrilling feeling.

While watching Love Means Zero, I had a hard time seeing what he brought to his students, in terms of technique, that was especially groundbreaking or special. Was there a Nick Bollettieri System?
I think about Jim Courier, who comes in with some kooky strokes — he came from a baseball background. Nick doesn’t try to change Jim as a player, which is what a more traditional coach would have done. He says, “Okay, well, your forehand is killer. Backhand, not so much. Well, why don’t you run around your backhand?” That was a technique started with Jimmy Arias, who had this unbelievable killer forehand. Nick would always adapt his strategy to the player’s strengths. That’s nonconventional tennis coaching, but this film isn’t about tennis, so I didn’t get into that — it’s very much about family and the emotional costs.

Love Means Zero wrestles with a fundamental question: Is all this aggravation and anguish worth it for a young person? Should someone put himself through a Nick Bollettieri just to win?
For Jim Courier, the answer was absolutely yes. During the [end] credits, there’s this extra scene where he’s talking about how he found peace with the pain that Nick put him through — he ended up being unbelievably grateful.

Now, that’s certainly not a defense of Nick’s behavior, but it’s a complicated question. Some students who came out of the academy who never achieved professional status still took a lot of those lessons and put them to work in meaningful ways in their life. You hear those stories over and over and over again. There are certainly people who were broken by their experiences — emotionally and perhaps otherwise. The experiences just vary so greatly, and the results.

There’s so much debate these days surrounding participation trophies, or whether we should instill in kids a notion that there are “winners” and “losers” in the games they play. I’m guessing Nick would be against participation trophies and the “everybody’s a winner” idea. How do you feel?
I’m unbelievably conflicted. Personally, I believe we need to reframe the idea of failure. This is partly a cultural critique, but I wish we could frame the idea of failure more along the lines of the way that scientists would frame the idea of failure — as an essential part of process. If you’re a scientist, failure is just another step on the road to your goals. But in our culture, failure is the ultimate pejorative.

Failure is an essential part of growth. It’s an essential part of process. But it also can have such negative cultural implications that are contrary to ideas of inclusion — which are just as important. What you want is an inclusive society where people feel entitled to play and aren’t afraid to lose or fail. The idea of participation trophies may be silly, but at the same time, it might also be a necessary curative to some of the issues that we face culturally.

In the film, Nick mentions he’s been married eight times. Just curious: Did you reach out to his seven exes to get a sense of this guy?
I spoke to his very first wife, who is the mother of his oldest son. I’d done a bit of research and thought about talking to some of the exes, but at some point, I had to decide what this movie was going to be about. In the end, it wasn’t about Nick’s personal life and the prices that were paid by his ex-wives and some of his children. That ended up detracting from our central storyline, which ended up being about the surrogate father-son relationship between him and Andre.

For me, when Nick says [in the film], “I can’t even remember the names of my eight wives,” that’s so much more about who he is as a human being. It was a joking moment, but that said so much about who he was and how he perceived the world.

That ties into what I wanted to ask you next. A few times, Bollettieri insists he doesn’t recall certain difficult things from his past — or he says he can’t explain why he made some of the stupid or cruel choices he did. I didn’t entirely believe him. Did you think he was lying?
I struggled with that. But then I saw this one piece of footage that informed my thoughts on him. At the very end of the film, you see Nick celebrating with Andre, cutting the cake at one of his tournaments. It was Nick’s birthday — I can’t remember exactly what year it was, or how old Nick was turning — but Andre was probably 18 or 19 years old. Nick was in his late 40s. I started to do the math, and I was thinking about this. I was like, “Oh my God, when Nick wins his first Grand Slam with Andre at Wimbledon in 1992, Nick’s about 50 years old. That’s the beginning of the peak of [Nick’s] career, and he’s already led multiple chapters of his life prior to that.”

The moments that scar us the most — the moments that we remember, the moments that we internalize — they tend to be moments that are earlier in our development. Nick’s already in his 50s — that’s not at all old, but it’s definitely middle age — and he’s at the beginning of a new chapter. He’s not going to remember every detail the same way that [former student] Kathleen Horvath is going to remember these details when she was 13, 14 and 15 years old — or Jim Courier, who was 17, 18 and 19. These are fundamental moments for those players because of their age. I do believe that a lot of this Nick just didn’t remember — his psyche had already been fully formed by that time.

But also, Nick is a natural storyteller. I can say this from my own personal experience: Once you commit a story to your personal mythology, it becomes a script, and it becomes completely detached from the actual event. It just becomes shtick.

Nick’s shtick was very, very solid — he wasn’t going to change. It didn’t matter what had happened in the past. In his [memoir], he writes that he remembers Kathleen Horvath hanging upside down from a tree in order to try and become taller. Now, Kathleen was tall for her age already — she never did that, and she said it over and over and over again. She told Nick, in person, “You misremembered.” I told Nick, in his interview, when he brought it up, “Kathleen says she never did that.” But Nick will still repeat this story because it’s just become part of his self-mythology.

There’s almost a Biblical quality to this conflict between Agassi and Bollettieri — the father and son who have this sudden, painful separation. Was that what drew you to that conflict?
For me, it wasn’t Biblical as much as it was Shakespearean.

It’s a personal story, but it goes back to three videocassettes that my grandfather made, when he was dying, for my mother, aunt and uncle of VHS copies of the Akira Kurosawa film Ran. It’s 1997, I’m in college, and I come back home. I see this videocassette. Now, I’d seen Rashomon in some kind of intro film class at university. But I had no idea my grandfather was a cinephile. I watched Ran, and I was instantly blown away — it became one of my favorite movies of all time at that moment, for personal reasons.

When I started looking into [Nick’s] story, [I thought about] Ran, which is an interpretation of King Lear. Kurosawa changed the three daughters into three sons. As I was crafting this story about three sons [Courier, Agassi and Becker] and a patriarch, Ran was the reverberation that informed our entire structure. Ran is about this recalcitrant patriarch who, at a certain point in the film, becomes comatose. He refuses to even acknowledge any of his past actions. The way that we learn about him is through these three epic samurai battle sequences. As an analog to each of those battle sequences, I had these three epic tennis matches: The 1989 French [Open], 1992 Wimbledon and then 1995 Wimbledon. Each was an opportunity to see how Nick achieved the level of fame, notoriety and success he did.

Out of curiosity, why did your grandfather make those copies of Ran?
My grandfather made those cassettes for his three children as an allegorical warning about how to act — or not to act — upon his death. That reverberated [with me]. When I started to argue with Nick and open up with Nick, one of the reasons I could do that was because we were both ethnic New Yorkers — him Italian and me Jewish — very much of the same kind of milieu, where we like to argue. This is our lingua franca — and that goes right back to the kind of relationship I’d have with my grandfather, who was this amazing man I really respected, but fierce. He shared a lot of the same generational qualities that I saw in Nick. I found that endearing.

I think for a lot of guys, we grow up needing some sort of patriarchal figure who represents this idea of masculinity or — 

Exactly. And that person is very tough on us — and yet, we need that figure to drive us forward.
I feel like the sense of betrayal that comes from those relationships are very real for a lot of people. I don’t want to speculate on or speak too broadly about other people’s experiences, but anybody who has ever been disappointed or hurt by a patriarchal figure in their lives — which I can imagine is extraordinarily common — can understand how it might feel to have this coach come in as somebody who’s offering both the carrot and the stick of paternal love. To be disappointed or feel betrayed by that figure, that’s not a difficult thing for any of us to imagine — or to imagine the emotional consequences of those kinds of events.

At the end of the film, it’s mentioned that Agassi still hasn’t respond to Bollettieri. Do you think Andre should?
Without ever digging into Andre’s perspective, it’s difficult to say. I’ve been cautious to speculate on Andre’s perspective regarding the film because perhaps it’s way worse than any of us could ever imagine — or maybe Andre is just, for one reason or another, the kind of person who can’t get over certain events, regardless of how large or small they might have been. I don’t know what the truth is.

I know that one of the things that I wanted to explore was that Nick still feels very, very strongly about Andre — and genuinely still loves him very much. He’ll never say a bad word about Andre. He’s extraordinarily defensive about Andre, and he doesn’t want anything to tarnish his memories about Andre.

What I didn’t know how to do was get at that emotion sincerely, which was quite accidental in giving him that letter. [In the film, Kohn has Bollettieri read aloud a note Agassi included in his memoir addressed to his former coach.] It wasn’t the intention to have an emotional breakthrough with Nick — it was just to remind him of some of the events that he wasn’t remembering as clearly as I would have liked. Then, all of a sudden, there’s that moment where I think everybody can see exactly how important Andre was to him. It’s this moment of real… I don’t want to say “revelation,” but emotional truth for Nick. For Nick, I wish Andre could have gotten over it. But everybody has their own meshugas, as they say in Yiddish.

I’m not saying you or the film is suggesting this, but when I walked away from Love Means Zero, my reaction was, “This Nick guy is a prick.” You do a good job of showing his complexity, but I just feel like he’s a prick. Is that the feedback you get from audiences?
The reactions often say much more about the audience member than about Nick. What’s crazy is that people will leave the leave the picture and say, “Oh, what an unbelievable narcissist — just a total asshole.” Then, you have other people who say the exact opposite: “What an amazing mentor and a brilliant coach.” So I think that the film allows a certain degree of interpretation. And I’d imagine that the audience’s response probably has more to do with their own personal relationships — perhaps even with their fathers, mentors or coaches in their lives — rather than Nick Bollettieri as a person. That kind of reflects who Nick is as a coach, which is different for every single player. He molds himself to be the coach that the player needs — I guess, by some kind of weird extension, he’s different to every audience member, depending on their personal experiences, as well.

But would you let your kids attend his academy?
I don’t have kids, but all I know is that when I was 13 years old, I dreamt of going to the academy. But the academy was only for unbelievably talented people, or wealthy people. I was, unfortunately, neither one of those two things, so it was never in the cards.

It depends so much on the child. Kathleen Horvath talks about this also: She’s been doing Q&As [for the movie], and people often ask her the same question. What she always says is it depends on whether or not you’re putting the child in the academy because you want them to go to the academy or the child wants to go to the academy. That’s a really, really big difference. If the parent wants something out of that experience, that might be potentially very dangerous. But if the child wants to go? Absolutely. Why not?