Even if you don’t follow tennis, the name Nick Bollettieri and his tennis academy likely rings a bell. Now on Showtime is “Love Means Zero“, the documentary which tells the story of this legendary but controversial coach, through both his own accounts and many of the players with whom he worked. Colorful archival 80’s and 90’s tennis footage (Fila, Ellesse, and Oakley fans delight!), combined with the weathered, or should I say leathered, 86-year-old Bolletieri’s braggadocio, makes for a captivating documentary anyone will enjoy.
Over the course of his career, Bollettieri coached such top players as Jim Courier, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, Anna Kournikova, Boris Becker, Serena and Venus Williams — but none is more famous than Andre Agassi, the primary focus of the film. Their 10-year partnership brought both player and coach tennis stardom, yielding Agassi his first of his Grand Slam wins at Wimbledon in 1992. Bolletieri shocked the world following that victory, however, immediately terminating his relationship with Agassi.
Founded in 1978, Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy was the first to train tennis prodigies away from their parents for a professional career in the sport. Bollettieri became a father figure to many, although his love is described by various players throughout the film as dependent on their success on the court. Agassi arrived as a teenager with a swagger and natural talent that made him the instant object of Bollettieri’s affection. This is most notable in comparison to 8-time Grand Slam winner Jim Courier, a pivotal character in the film, who had the skills but not the charisma for which both Agassi and Bollettieri were known.
Perhaps the most poignant scene comes in the 1989 French Open which pitted Courier and Agassi against each other. Courier describes himself as a “company man”, representing the Bollettieri Academy with pride. He would see Bollettieri sitting in Agassi’s box, however, cheering for just one of them, and it was clear who he wanted to win. “I thought I was on his team”, Courier recollects. “I thought I was part of Team Bollettieri, but he had chosen another son over me.” Courier would get the ultimate revenge with a win over Agassi that day, but left the academy after that victory.
A charismatic but unapologetic character, Bollettieri reflects back on this and other player relationships with a delivery and style reminiscent of Robert Evans in “The Kid Stays in the Picture”. Referring to himself in the third person, he describes “Nick’s” actions with such macho phrases as, “In life baby, if you don’t do wrong you’ll never reach the top of the mountain”. Bollettieri admits siding with Agassi and knowing Courier was hurt, but claims no recollection of his departure. Married eight times, he also claims no recollection of his ex-wives’s names.
Agassi is notably absent from the film, a point that is made by director Jason Kohn, in trying without much success to elicit honest and introspective comments from Bollettieri. He never reveals the reason for abruptly terminating his relationship with Agassi after that first Grand Slam win they worked so hard together to achieve — nor does he explain why he did so in a letter, or why he announced it in USA Today before he told Agassi.
The film does end with admissions of mistakes, but no regrets. We get an apology to Agassi with vows to make amends. A final scene shows Bollettieri dropping a letter to Agassi into the mailbox. The film was originally released in September of 2017. There is still no reply from Agassi thus far.
All images screenshots from “Love Means Zero”