Review: Love Means Zero

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Review: Love Means Zero
Jul 31, 2018

By Josh Needelman

Nick Bollettieri doesn’t remember much.

He doesn’t remember when he abruptly told Kathleen Horvath, a teen sensation whom he referred to as a daughter, to leave his academy when it became clear she wouldn’t become a champion. He doesn’t remember why he opted to sit in Andre Agassi’s box during his protege’s 1989 French Open third-round loss to fellow student Jim Courier, and he doesn’t remember when Courier stormed off afterwards, never to train with Bollettieri again. Perhaps the 86-year-old’s memory is selective. But Bollettieri has fond memories of July 5, 1992.

“To see Andre drop to his knees, and do this, and wave to us — that was something that I do remember,” Bollettieri said.

Agassi’s Wimbledon finals win over Goran Ivanišević was a seminal moment for the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, a crowning validation of both Agassi’s ability and Bollettieri’s influence. But the duo’s ensuing breakup shone light on the fault lines permeating Bollettieri’s coarse coaching methods.

Such was documentary film director Jason Kohn’s focus in Showtime’s  “Love Means Zero” — a damning look into the tennis factory Bollettieri founded in 1978 and used to groom a generation of tennis stars.

Superstar tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, shown at the 2009 U.S. Open, is the subject of Showtime’s new documentary film “Love Means Zero.” (Photo: Charlie Cowins)

The film was paced and produced wonderfully, aside from Kohn’s frequent verbal sparring with Bollettieri, like a son lecturing a stubborn father.

Kohn would have been wise to let Bollettieri’s musings stand alone. The groan-inducing back-and-forths generally slowed things down, but one such exchange did offer a useful glimpse into Bollettieri’s psyche.

“I want it to come across loud and clear — I did not think about things. I did not think of the ramifications, whether negative or positive or neutral.  That’s me. Can I explain that? No I can’t explain that,” Bollettieri said.

“But my job is to make meaning. I need to make meaning out of this,” Kohn punches back, annoyed. Bollettieri, with his leathery, tan skin and diminishing hair gray, points straight ahead.

“Maybe for the first time in your career, you’re up against somebody that is tough to make meaning out of. OK?” Bollettieri says, now pointing to himself. “That happens. Now if you’re good, you’ll find a way to make this successful. Now it’s up to you. How you take a character like me, do it a little different, and make it a success, which I’m sure you will. Because if I didn’t have confidence in you, baby, I wouldn’t be doing it.”

Bollettieri turning a contentious interaction with the filmmaker into a pep talk and vote of confidence is as instructive to his coaching mindset as the way he treated Agassi, Courier and Horvath.

Bollettieri flipped youth tennis on its head, creating a new model of taking kids out of their parents’ homes and boarding them at his academy. Admittedly not a tennis tactician — “I don’t know half of what most coaches know in the world about pronation, turning your hips and shoulders, the dynamics of the stroke, centrifugal force, I don’t know one… —– I don’t know anything about that ” — he bred competition by pitting students against one another, with the reward his love and respect. He created a system of “haves” and “have-nots,” with his best students living comfortably in his home and the rest in cramped dormitories.

Leveraging vulnerable adolescents’ craving for acceptance for personal gain was chided by some, but the results are hard to argue with.

“Look at who came through the academy,” Bollettieri says early in the documentary. “Agassi, [Monica] Seles, Courier, [Aaron] Krickstein, [Jimmy] Arias, Mary Pierce. Come on let’s keep going, baby. My Serena [Williams], my Venus [Williams], Anna Kournikova, Maria Sharapova, Tommy Haas.”

Indeed, the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy became a sensation, until it was purchased by IMG Academy in 1987, and the head man a tennis whisperer. The more success his students had, the more students he could attract. And the more students he could attract, the bigger his influence grew.

“We had to have a big winner. Not a state champion. But a winner,” he said.

He got two, at least, in Courier and Agassi, but not without controversy. Courier’s current relationship with Bollettieri isn’t addressed, but his visceral recountings of the past suggests it isn’t great. “He had chosen another son,” Courier said.

The situation with Agassi, the golden child in question, is more complicated and represents the central plotline of the documentary. “Why can’t we let that be, and let the record do the talking?” Bollettieri pleads early in the film.

Ignoring the Agassi/Bollettieri story would result in a largely incomplete narrative of Bollettieri’s career arc. A mulleted rebel with a penchant for flash on and off the court, Agassi was Bollettieri’s crown jewel, the best advertisement for the tennis academy. But Agassi grew irritated with Bollettieri’s yearning for the spotlight. Bollettieri reacted decisively and harshly, as he is wont to do, sending Agassi a letter in the mail terminating their professional and — unintentionally — personal relationship. Bollettieri broke the news to a reporter before the letter reached Agassi, inciting a decades-long feud that remains unresolved.

Agassi flourished with other coaches, finishing his career with eight Grand Slam titles and a bald head (spoiler: the mullet was a wig). But his refusal to speak with Kohn for “Love Means Zero” loomed large.

Bollettieri explains his life decisions as a series of reactions. He refuses to think before acting, without apology. The mindset serves both as a blueprint for being a successful tennis coach and how to sever relationships. In both cases, Bollettieri is a winner.

Josh Needelman, a Merrill College graduate, is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Exponent.

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