An ace for India. The hunt is on

An ace for India. The hunt is on

Almost a hundred children traded backhands and forehands under a blazing sun at the All India Tennis Association’s (Aita) courts in New Delhi on Monday. Anxious parents spoke in hushed tones behind the iron fence girdling the court, waiting for a decision that could set their child on the path to becoming the next global star. Making that decision was a man who has produced more tennis champions than anyone else.

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Nick Bollettieri, 78, was hunched over at the side of the net, his face screwed up in attention, sweat pouring down his face, trying to spot the brightest talent from the bunch. The legendary American tennis coach has been doing this for more than 32 years and knows a thing or two about talent—Andre Agassi came to him as a long-haired 14-year-old with a deep dislike for the game. Maria Sharapova turned up at his academy when she was just 9, Jelena Jankovic at 12. Venus and Serena Williams still do their pre-Slam preparations at the 56-court IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy at Bradenton, Florida.

Now international sports management group IMG, which owns Bollettieri’s academy, and Nita and Mukesh Ambani will sponsor four children from India every year to attend the world’s best known tennis finishing school.

Bollettieri was making his maiden visit to India to handpick the first batch. Aita identified the top tennis players between the ages of 11 to 15 from across India for the trials, which were held over two days in Delhi.

“This is not a one-shot thing," says Bollettieri, “this is a full-time commitment."

Creating future champions

Ravi Krishnan, the Mumbai-based South Asia head of IMG, says 15 players will go to the Bollettieri Academy for two weeks in the first phase, and the best four among them will be awarded the scholarship—which covers both sports and academics for a minimum duration of one year, after which students can continue at the academy till they finish schooling. “The process is fluid. If Nick wants five kids instead of four, we’ll give him five," says Krishnan, adding that around $100,000 (Rs46.9 lakh) would be spent on each student every year.

India’s Davis Cup coach Nandan Bal, who helped Bollettieri’s team during the trials, thinks these are exciting times for Indian tennis. “If you look at players like Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, they made it big because of their individual effort and not because of the system," says Bal. “Now the system is in place to produce champions, and the IMG Reliance scholarship is the icing on the cake."

One Indian tennis player is already reaping the benefits of the IMG Bollettieri Academy—Yuki Bhambri, the No. 1 ranked junior player in the world in 2009. The Delhi-based player turned 18 this month, and now faces the daunting prospect of making the leap to the big stage. “He has the necessary talent to be darn good at tennis," says Bollettieri, “but he’s gotta add 10 or 15 pounds. He’s not a small boy, he’s over 6ft, but he’s gotta get tougher mentally and physically. I do believe Indian kids are way behind physically."

Bollettieri’s plans for India don’t stop at the new scholarships—he never does anything in small measures, he says. “I want to reach out to coaches across India, get them on the same platform, make them really good, because that’s how tennis will go forward," he says. He has already made plans to introduce a concept called “tennis-in-a-can"—10 videos and a 300-page manual for coaches to train without good facilities or equipment. “It was a huge success in the US," he says, “and it helped coaches in high schools across the country."

There’s no stopping Nick

To celebrate his 80th birthday, Bollettieri plans to skydive with commandos from the US army’s elite West Point Academy. That’s just the way he is—driven, dramatic, and always looking to get bigger and better. That’s why he started giving tennis lessons without ever having played the game, and then decided to give up his law course to become a full-time coach. In 1978, he opened the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, the first tennis boarding school, based on nothing more than the desire to do so. It changed the way tennis was played and taught.

“I got good because God gave me an eye to recognize talent," he growls, and taps me on the shoulder. “When I look at a person, I try to find simple ways to help the person. I want to make small little adjustments. That’s the key," he says, drilling his eyes into me, fingers rigid and pointed. “I spot the little things."

In 1991, those little things became big successes on the world stage—Boris Becker was Bollettieri’s first pupil to become World No. 1. He was followed by Monica Seles, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier in quick succession.

Did he feel thrilled by this? “No," Bollettieri shrugs, “never thought about it. The only thought was ‘get another one’."