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A Svengali of the tennis world gets his close-up in the diabolically well-titled Love Means Zero, an on-its-toes documentary about the legendary and/or notorious tennis teacher and coach Nick Bollettieri. The man behind (at least part of the time) an all-star list of champions that includes Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Jim Courier, Venus and Serena Williams, Boris Becker, Mary Pierce and many others, Bollettieri talks like a goodfella, doesn’t know from sentimentality, has the skin of a lizard, refuses to countenance regrets and bluntly states that, “If you ask me right now to give you the names of my eight wives, I couldn’t do it.” Showtime has a winner in Jason Kohn’s tight and observant documentary, at the heart of which is a man so unusual and blunt-spoken that its appeal should extend beyond sports fans.
The son of Italian immigrants to New York who made good in his own original and controversial way, the subject is now 86 but still churning with inside stories, strong opinions and remorseless ego and confidence. He gives the immediate impression of someone you don’t want as your enemy but, at the same time, his track record is such that you may not want him as your friend or confidant either. Just like Kirk Douglas’ Machiavellian film producer in The Bad and the Beautiful, he’s too smart and skillful to ignore. But you embrace him at your peril.
Other than for his champions, Bollettieri is best known for the youth tennis camps he started running in the late 1970s in Florida, where young pupils were boarded and put through extremely demanding training from 6 o’clock in the morning until 9 at night, seven days a week. Never a competitive player himself (a bit of background on how he became such an expert would have been helpful), Bollettieri was a combination of guru and wiseguy who drove his students to the brink and got results, especially, on the men’s side, with Agassi and Courier, who came up at the same time and played some extraordinary matches against one another.
This is where is gets complicated. “I wanted to be a winner, and with winners,” Bollettieri admits at the outset but, if your prize players compete directly, as they began to do in 1990, what do you do? When Agassi and Courier faced off in their first Grand Slam event, at the French Open, their coach openly sided with Agassi; Courier was deeply aggrieved but went on to win, and it’s easy to speculate that the resentment gave him extra motivation in the match.
Another young Bollettieri star, Carling Bassett, says that her teacher could drop, hurt and betray his charges at any time, a trait most dramatically illustrated by his seemingly senseless split with Agassi a couple of years later. Bollettieri soon joined forces with another star, Boris Becker, who had always had great trouble with Agassi, and little in the film is as dramatic as the showdown between these two as narrated by Becker (Agassi pointedly refused to be interviewed for the film).
The reckless dismissal of Agassi was, in the opinion of one of Bollettieri’s associates, “probably the worst decision that Nick ever made,” and it’s pretty clear that the coach would agree, even if his entire personality runs contrary to looking back and second-guessing. The central fascination of the film resides in the plain fact that it’s entirely about the subject looking back and talking about what he’s done, and yet this is someone who, in line with his remark about his ex-wives, refuses any introspection or reconsideration of his decisions.
Complexities that would be impossible for Bollettieri to address bubble just beneath the surface of the film and provide as much substance as do the career signposts. “I’ve never sat still this long,” the restless old-timer complains straight to the camera toward the end, and yet it’s clear that he relishes nothing more than talking about himself and his accomplishments (a truth underlined by his engaging post-film Q&A in Toronto, where he couldn’t be shut up). His stubborness about always moving on and never looking back has clearly taken a toll; while his financial situation is never addressed, one picks up signs that his many divorces, kids and busted professional relationships have left him much less well-off than he would have been had he addressed these matters differently. His ego and self-regard are so big that he has trouble admitting to any faults. But he’s quite the schmoozer, which gives Kohn (whose previous documentary a decade ago was the Sundance grand jury prize-winner Manda Bala, about the kidnapping epidemic in Brazil) plenty to work with in creating this sharp portrait of a singular sports personality.
Production companies: Kilo Films, Showtime Documentary Films
Director: Jason Kohn
Producers: Amanda Branson Gill, Jason Kohn, Anne White, Jill Mazursky, David Styne
Executive producers: Stephen Espinoza, Vinnie Malhotra
Director of photography: Eduardo Enrique Mayen
Editors: Jack Price, Michael Flores
Music: Jonathan Sadoff
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
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