By Curtis Rist
September 09, 1996 12:00 PM

TENNIS IS NICK BOLLETTIERI’S LIFE, but just now he’s got landscaping on his mind. A ficus tree behind his sprawling lakefront condo in Bradenton, Fla., has had the nerve to sprout a few branches, blocking his view, and he wants it pruned. He assigns the task to Leah Rhodes, 33, his live-in girlfriend, then flies off to New York City. Now, back at his nearby tennis academy and in the middle of practice, he spies Rhodes and rushes over to a chain-link fence to bug her again. “He’s like this all the time. He obsesses,” she says, as he darts back to the court. “When I picked him up at the airport last night, it was the first thing he asked about. Not how was I doing—how was the tree doing. I tell him this is why he’s been married four times.”

Sure, Bollettieri obsesses. But what else would you expect from the man regarded by many—himself included—as the world’s greatest tennis coach? A list of his proteges reads like the ABCs of the sport—Agassi, Becker, Courier and on down. In 1987, a peak year, Bollettieri had 32 students in the main draw at Wimbledon and 27 in the U.S. Open. Yet his tennis relationships, like his marriages, often have been rocky. In his new autobiography, My Aces, My Faults, Bollettieri gives a whirlwind tour of the tennis world and answers the criticisms of former pupils (and their parents) such as Monica Seles and Mary Pierce. “I can’t say I’m angry, because there have been some damn rich rewards,” says Bollettieri, 65, who has turned his academy into an empire with 11 satellite centers around the world. “But shortchanged? Yes.”

He saves his most impassioned volleys for Andre Agassi, who came to Bollettieri’s academy when 13 and stayed through his 1992 Wimbledon win at 22. The next year Bollettieri dropped him in a feud over money and Andre’s turning to others for expertise. When Agassi told reporters that Bollettieri was “insignificant” to his career, the tennis coach erupted and decided to write a book. “If I was so insignificant,” he says, still sputtering, “please tell me, how did he get to be No. 3 in the world with me?” Agassi has slammed back. Bollettieri, he told Inside Tennis in June, “is absolutely disrespectful, has no integrity, has no class, and quite honestly, if everyone in the world was like him, it would absolutely be a horrible place to live.”

One thing is true: Everything about Bollettieri is extreme—even his tanning. Shirtless in the broiling Florida sun, he prides himself on a tone so deep that, while skiing in Austria, he says, he was once mistaken for Bill Cosby. (Not a total loony, he gets checked for skin cancer three times a year.) To complete the look, he over-bleaches his teeth. “You get this stuff from the dentist that you put on a few hours once a month,” says Rhodes, a flight attendant. “But Nick keeps it on for about 18 hours. Typical.”

What’s not typical was Bollettieri’s entry into the sport. Growing up “on the wrong side of the tracks” in Pelham, N.Y., the second of three children of James, a pharmacist, and Mary, a homemaker, Nick played football and basketball, not tennis. “It wasn’t that kind of place,” he says. “Tennis was a sissy sport.” While attending Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., he picked up a racquet during summer vacation and hit a few balls with a wealthy uncle in New Rochelle, N.Y. “I just, you know, chased everything down,” he says, “and tried to keep the ball in play and hoped my uncle would miss.”

From that, Bollettieri built a tennis empire. Volunteering for the paratroops after graduation in 1953, he ducked schlock duty at various bases by coaching tennis, which, he says, “I still knew nothing about.” Along the way, he married dental hygienist Phyllis Johnson and enrolled at the University of Miami to study law. In 1956, to support his wife and their new son, Jimmy (now 40 and a photographer), Bollettieri taught tennis on a bumpy court in North Miami Beach’s Victory Park. Phyllis helped by watching other pros and passing tips to Nick. The rest of the time, he admits, “I faked it.”

He couldn’t fake an interest in law school, though, and soon dropped out. “I had an eye for it,” he says of his ability to see what made a player tick. After working with talented youngsters like Brian Gottfried—who showed up at Victory Park at age 9 and eventually became one of the top players in the U.S.—he had a career as well. He spent his winters at the Dorado Beach Hotel in Puerto Rico, owned by the Rockefellers, where a vacationing Vince Lombardi discerned his gift. In 1967, the celebrated football coach recommended Bollettieri for a summer job running a tennis camp in Beaver Dam, Wis. In 1978, Bollettieri inaugurated his academy in Florida. To stomp out the “sissy” factor, he used techniques gleaned from the paratroops. Students lived and worked in groups and “weren’t allowed to twirl racquets or chew gum,” he says. If they did, everybody ran laps.

As his reputation expanded, so did his marital résumé. One day in 1959, Phyllis—tired of his absences—simply deposited his clothes in their front yard. His second and fourth marriages whizzed by like Sampras serves, but wife No. 3, Jeri Sylvester, hung in for 12 years. “Living with Nick is a challenge,” says Sylvester. “It is difficult to find intimacy with him. He was so caught up in starting the academy.” (Sylvester, who works at the academy, has two daughters, Danielle, 29, and Angel, 26, with Bollettieri.) That same single-mindedness about his career ended his marriage to Kellie Handler (mother of Nicole, 13, and Alex, 8) after he began traveling with Agassi. “She gave me an ultimatum,” says Nick, “us or Andre.” He chose Andre.

With Rhodes, it’s a full house again. (Say hello to Anna Kournikova, 15, and her mother, from Russia, and Tommy Haas, 18, from Germany). Yet this latest relationship seems divorce-proof: Rhodes says she won’t marry him, ever. “Not with his track record,” she says, laughing. But she has loved him ever since they met at an airport four years ago. “It just worked,” says Rhodes. She also enjoys being a matriarch for the ’90s—cheerfully gathering with his children and ex-wife Jeri at Jeri’s place on Thanksgiving.

The two rise at 5:30 a.m. and work out with Bollettieri’s personal trainer—and even here he’s over-the-top. “He does 500 sit-ups,” says Rhodes, after carefully weighing himself “just like a girl.” She has taken up tennis but had to badger him for a 45-minute private session, which would normally cost $1,500. He did it for free, but, knowing Bollettieri, Rhodes put a kitchen timer on the sideline to make sure she received her full allotment of time. He gave her 41 minutes.

Rhodes isn’t complaining; she says her forehand has improved. “Even a few minutes with Nick is amazing,” she says. No surprise, he agrees. “What I offer the premium player,” says Bollettieri, “is the spirit and the feeling that they can become better.” He sees it as a gift from Above. “He gave Agassi hands and eyes,” says Bollettieri, “and He gave me the ability to deliver that message.”

Now, about that tree…